Tiger, Bear and a week like no other

The greatest says farewell and his heir is back in his pomp at game's home
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The Independent Online

The American pulled out of the 134th Open Championship last week citing "scheduling reasons", which directly translates from golfspeak into "I can't be bothered". His loss, Fife's gain. Billy, don't be a zero.

Of course, Mayfair is not the first American to turn down the honour of playing in the oldest, and still undoubtedly the best, major. But if events go anything like the way that the heart and head promise they will do, then he could very well be the last. For after St Andrews 2005, The Open might take on an even more mythical quality that will convince even the most insular Texan that it really is worth opening the ranch gates for.

For starters there will be Jack Nicklaus's farewell, which on the menu suggests a sickeningly schmaltzy dish, but on serving will be anything but. Jack does not do corny goodbyes - he leaves that to dear old Arnold Palmer - but what the Golden Bear will most definitely do is remind everyone he has the most unshakeable will that sport has ever known by fighting every inch of these 7,279 blessed yards to go out on what the 65-year-old would term a real high. And to Jack, quite simply, that means making the cut.

So as he crosses the Swilcan Bridge that leads on to the ancient 18th fairway sometime on Friday - which just may, quite spookily, be coincidentally timed to clash with evening telly - it would be a brave/foolhardy photographer who asked him to pose for one last picture without checking the scoreboard first. If Nicklaus is within even the faintest sniff of ensuring a Sunday finish to a career that ranks alongside any in the sporting pantheon - and far ahead of all but the very few - then the waves, tears and front-page images can wait. There will be a game to be played. And for that moment at least, Jack will still be obsessed in playing it.

And who can blame him, because when your finger runs down the starting sheet in the knowledge that almost anyone can win - ask Ben Curtis, ask Todd Hamilton - then it is impossible not to feel the burning sensation that tells you we could be on the brink of something very special here: the Fab Four, Nicklaus, ex-champions such as Nick Faldo and John Daly, more household names than you can throw a golf stick at, a young British challenge that excites every bit as much as it promises. All this would be alluring enough, but one name leaps out to grab the finger and send it pointing towards history: Tiger Woods.

Ask anyone who is not hell-bent on coming across as either (a) very clever; (b) very contrary; or (c) very foolish, and they will put up the 29-year-old as the likely winner without a moment's hesitation. Woods looks made for the Old Course, just like Jack did before him, and all would seem proper and right in the game if he could replicate his eight-shot victory of five years ago to take his major tally into double figures and quicken the chase to Nicklaus's 18.

Except that such a feat would be much, much more than a mere replication, because the cast assembling with the determination at the very least to slow down this inexorable march to immortality is not the same sorry bunch of cowering so-and-sos who once upon a time would always dive for cover in the rough whenever Tiger was prowling the fairways.

True, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els have not risen to accept the challenge laid down so emphatically by Woods in the two majors thus far this year, but the fact that others have - Chris DiMarco so agonisingly at Augusta, Michael Campbell so joyously at Pinehurst - proves that everything has changed in this half-decade.

When Woods declared at Limerick early last week, as he arrived in Ireland for his annual calming session before the feared storms, "I don't want to be the Tiger Woods of 2000 - I want to be better", he was not saying it as some sort of schoolboy vindication of the swing changes that were so remorselessly reviled in his "lull", but more in the basic realisation that the bar has been raised. He raised it, the rest responded, and now he must raise it again. As his "favourite golf course in the world", St Andrews would be a fine place to do the reraising, especially with Nicklaus departing the scene that only someone of Woods's magnificence can dare take.

So what does he have to do to take it? Here come the Old Course clichés that make Woods smile so in their naïve simplicity: he must drive it long (doesn't matter how straight), he must avoid the bunkers - as he so famously, not to mention so fortunately, did in the millennium Open - he must find the lines to pins and not just the massive greens, and he must putt the long putts of the inspired.

The one facet that jars on that familiar list is the last, because Woods is not the green-eyed monster he once was, as he proved so expensively at the US Open. By day four in North Carolina his swing was the prototype of consistency that his new coach, Hank Haney, has so laboriously chiselled it to be, but then on the shaved stuff he worryingly left all pretence of the metronomic perfection behind. But not too worryingly.

"That I finished second to last on the putting stats there but still only Campbell was good enough to beat me shows how well I'm hitting the ball right now," he said. Indeed it does, just as it suggests how similarly brilliantly his rivals will have to perform to deny what would intriguingly be only his second Claret Jug.

In golf's oh-so-brave new age, there will be a few opportunists for Tiger to get past first, of course. A sneaking fancy here is for the bulking frame of Argentina's Angel Cabrera to smash through St Andrews' subtle defences - bunkers permitting, naturally - and of the rest of the quadrilateral that cannot yet be termed "impregnable", Mickelson's touch to outshine Els's current mood of despondency and Singh's age-old flaws with the straight-faced implement.

Of the home guard, Padraig Harrington would be the predictable choice, although Lee Westwood might outshoot the Irishman as well as the other favoured Europeans in Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald, neither of whom look particularly at home at "the home of golf".

Tiger does. As does Jack. The week is all about those two. Or three when you include St Andrews. Mayfair just doesn't know what he's missing. Silly Billy.