The golf was on the TV in the lounge at Greywalls, the cozy inn
where Jack Nicklaus stays whenever he plays Muirfield, site of
next month's British Open. It was on at the Nicklaus home in
North Palm Beach, Fla., where the great man spent Father's Day
with his children and their children. Thirty years ago there
were no grandchildren, and his kids were still tearing around
and Nicklaus, bell-bottomed and side-burned, won the Masters in
April and the U.S. Open in June. The 1972 British Open was at
Muirfield. For a month, all through golf there was one
conversation: Can Big Jack win the Grand Slam?
Now that old question is new again. When Tiger Woods won at
Augusta in April he became the only man who could win the Grand
Slam in 2002. Now, with the annual four-day mid-June grindfest
concluded, he remains the only man who can win the Grand Slam in
2002. Two down, two to go. Five weeks from now we'll all be
saying, Next stop, Hazeltine!
"Tiger will have an excellent chance at Muirfield," Nicklaus
said on Sunday night, while Woods stood on the 18th green at
Bethpage Black. "At Muirfield you have to think, you have to hit
it straight, you have to play in every wind direction. It has
everything except length. Sure he can win there.
"The guys chasing him don't have experience winning majors.
Tiger's dominating. I was semidominating. The guys chasing me,
the guys I chased--Palmer, Player, Watson, Trevino--they all had
won majors. One guy chased Tiger on Sunday, Phil Mickelson.
Phil's a wonderful player, but he hasn't won a major. That makes
a big difference."
Come July 18-21 at Muirfield, Tiger will be chasing one man, a
62-year-old semiretired grandfather in Florida who won 18 majors
in his day (which somehow lasted 25 years, from first major to
last). Tiger has won eight majors in only six years. People are
starting to talk about Tiger's growing bored, winning by three
here (Bethpage), by 12 there ('97 Masters). Tiger will never
grow bored, not as long as Jack's list is longer than his.
Tiger's understanding of golf history is acute. More to the
point, he seizes the day like nobody's business. Of course he
won the 100th U.S. Open at the most beautiful course in the
world, Pebble Beach, with the whole world watching. Of course he
won the millennial British Open at the manger of the game, the
Old Course. Of course he won last week on the longest,
narrowest, publicest course in U.S. Open history. And of course
he's going to win at Muirfield.
Here are the players who have won the Open at Muirfield since
the end of World War II: Henry Cotton, Gary Player, Nicklaus,
Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Nick Faldo. Niclas Fasth could be
the next name on that list, but don't bet on it. "I bet Tiger
will watch tapes of me winning at Muirfield," Faldo said on
Sunday. He won two of his three British Opens there, in '87 and
'92. "We'll see if he's worked out the secret."
Nicklaus won the first of his three British Opens at Muirfield,
a place he reveres to this day. In the mid-'70s, when he built a
golfing settlement of fine homes and fine courses on a huge
spread of farmland outside Columbus, Ohio, he named it Muirfield
Village. Woods has won Jack's tournament there, the Memorial,
three times. He understands the Nicklaus-Muirfield connection
because he understands Nicklaus's career.
On Sunday at Muirfield, it rained for the 16th straight day.
Rain, followed by sunshine, day after day. When Faldo won at
Muirfield, the rough, he said, was "wispy." This year a
Muirfield man, Gavin Corbett, was saying on Sunday, "the
Muirfield rough is as thick as the Bethpage rough, but there's
no American first cut." Hit the fairway or hack it out. Perfect
for Tiger. He'll hit that two-iron all day long.
There's one final reason Woods will win at Muirfield next month.
Thirty years ago Nicklaus didn't. Trevino beat him, by a shot,
and there's no Trevino in the game today.
On Sunday night Woods was asked about Muirfield. "Right now I
could care less about that," he said. "It's going to be awhile
before I start working on my links game."
Tiger is an excellent golfer, but a very poor liar.
COLOR PHOTO: TONY TRIOLO TOUGH ROAD Woods is in step with Nicklaus, who in '72 at Muirfield came within a stroke of winning three straight majors.
Tiger Woods will win the British Open for one big reason. Thirty
years ago Jack Nicklaus didn't.