The Peter Corrigan Column: Unforgettable goodbye that stirred the ghosts

But before we draw the painful disparity between the fates of Smith and Nicklaus it must be acknowledged that all that is great in golf, all that is great in sport, was on display at the Old Course when Nicklaus took his leave of the game that idolises him.

There is no other place in the world that could have staged such scenes and no crowd more appropriate for the job of drawing tears of pride from the great man's eyes.

The home of golf for 600 years, St Andrews might be in danger of being known as the old folks' home of golf because of the number of times it has served the game's legends as the last stop before Valhalla. But the gods - or, rather, those in the R&A who manipulated the starting times so brilliantly - had arranged that no sooner had Nicklaus vanished from the sight of his adoring galleries than the heir to his throne would appear up the 18th to receive their blessings of acclaim for his imperious progress through the first two rounds.

Successions are rarely as smoothly seamless as that and, what is important, it ensured that there was no sense of emptiness or that the tournament would be left in a state of anti-climax.

It was impossible not to be affected by the emotion of it all and, in many ways, it was as well that Nicklaus did not make the cut, as he might easily have done with a little extra sureness in his putting. The genuine and unforgettable nature of the farewell would not have carried the same impact had it lingered for another two days.

It was the right time, the right tone and it was right and proper that he allowed it to occur where it did. This was his way of acknowledging the place St Andrews occupies as the heart and soul of golf, and he takes his place among its revered names of a long and glorious past.

The devoted crowds who follow The Open every year have the right to be regarded as sport's premier band of witnesses. They are a compliant and uncomplaining lot, but they have not always been so.

Although they have played a major role in adding colour and substance to the event since its early days in the 19th century, their enthusiastic demeanour has not always been as admirable as it has been this weekend.

Macdonald Smith is the saddest testimony to that. Before he became a shattered victim of the massed ranks 80 years ago his reputation rivalled the heights that Nicklaus reached. Smith was regarded as the best golfer in the world, especially in America, where he won most of his 50 championships. But he was equally famous for letting major titles slip through his fingers.

Then, in 1925, he arrived at the brink of winning The Open at Prestwick. He set a new course record of 69 on his way to establishing a five-shot lead over Englishman "Long" John Barnes before the start of the final round.

Barnes played earlier in the day, and when Mac appeared at the first tee he needed a modest 78 to win. When word spread that their man was about to find his glory, thousands flocked to the course and the crowd quadrupled to 20,000 or more.

But their fervour was uncontrollable and they crowded in on Smith and his playing partner, Tom Fernie, so tightly that on the third hole neither could see the other and they hit their approaches at the same time. By an extraordinary freak, their balls collided in midair, costing Smith a shot.

Often having to play over the heads of the gallery to an invisible green, Smith dropped stroke after stroke. They hemmed him in so much he complained he could not swing the club properly, nor would they back off so he could size up a putt.

Whereas Barnes took three hours for his round, Smith took five and suffered continual harassment throughout. Having done their damage, crowd had drifted disappointedly away before he slumped off the final green with an 82. The stampeding, shoving galleries came to witness his triumph and wantonly destroyed it. He never did win a major, and Prestwick never staged The Open again.

The following year they began charging for entry and, gradually, the freedom of the links disappeared behind ropes and marshalls. The inspirational, well-mannered scenes that we saw on Friday evening had a large initial cost and Macdonald Smith paid it.

A classic owner goal

The suggestion from the Jockey Club last week that owners and trainers should not be allowed to bet on the horses they are associated with did not go down well in certain parts of St Andrews.

As the owner of a fifth of a beautiful beast who will be doing duty over the sticks in the autumn, such a decree could save me a lot of money in wasted faith.

But in the camp of Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood there was little joy in the prospect. Indeed, their mentor and manager, Chubby Chandler, shared the indignation of many when he heard the news. Between them, they own sizeable stakes in 12 horses, and if they were not allowed to bet on them they would not see much point in it.

"People own horses for fun and optimistic betting is a big part of that. Owners bet out of loyalty as much as anything else, and in every race the owners will have a few bob on the off chance," Chandler said.

"We had a horse called Tequila Sheila running at Lingfield on Wednesday. The stable weren't too enthusiastic but we backed her anyway, and she came in second at 9-1. We were delighted. That's what we love about racing, and I shudder at the way it is being run at the moment. Just as golf needs sponsors, so racing needs owners. What's the point of upsetting them?"

Tiger's two tales

Relationships between British and American golf writers are generally cordial, but occasionally there is a clash of transatlantic priorities. Tiger Woods' appearance in the press centre interview room after his 66 on Thursday was going routinely when a British voice asked about his thoughts during the two-minute silence in memory of those who were killed in the London bombings.

Tiger then revealed the surprise news that "my mom was in the building right across the street where the bomb blew up - it could have been pretty tragic for me personally".

"What, on the day of the bombing?" asked another British voice.

"Uh-huh," agreed Woods.

There was a brief and slightly stunned silence before an American voice interjected: "How many times did you hit a wedge in to a green after a drive?"

Woods replied that it was six and fielded another American question on golf before he was brought back to the subject of his mother. That is how it continued, with the home side trying to drag out the facts about his mother and the visitors trying to drag him back to the golf course.

The home side just about won, and one American was heard to say to another: "These bloody Brits. Why didn't they let us get on to the real story?"

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