Saluting Nicklaus, Woods leads British

2000 champ increases advantage in 4 strokes

July 16, 2005|By Mark Herrmann | Mark Herrmann,NEWSDAY

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - On yet another day when it seemed that no one could catch Tiger Woods, history gave him a reminder about whom he is trying to catch. Woods crossed paths with Jack Nicklaus yesterday in the British Open interview tent, on the way to the record book.

"Good playing!" Nicklaus said to Woods, giving him a pat on the midsection as they met between news conferences at the Old Course. Woods, who was coming in to talk about being 11-under par after two rounds and leading the Open by four strokes, knew it wasn't just another day, and that the compliment wasn't coming from just anybody.

"He's the greatest champion that has ever lived," Woods said of Nicklaus, whose 18 major titles provided what might be the only worthy adversary for the current No. 1 player in the world this week.

As Nicklaus received ovations on every hole in honor of what he said was his final round of competitive golf, Woods, playing three groups behind him, was making his own steady progress toward reaching Nicklaus' standard.

"He has been the benchmark for every player who has ever played the game, at least in my generation," Woods said. And when it was suggested that this week provides a convenient measuring stick between the two, Woods added, "To be compared with the greatest player and the greatest champion - it's nice to be in that kind of company and that kind of breath. It's certainly an honor that I'm even mentioned in that conversation."

When Woods is playing well on a course that he knows and loves, it can appear that nobody in the current game belongs in his company. He methodically and rather quietly shot 5-under 67 yesterday at St. Andrews and put himself well ahead of a pack that doesn't hold out much hope for itself.

Colin Montgomerie, Scotland's favorite son, fresh off an inspired 66 yesterday that put him in second place at 7-under, said, "If Tiger Woods plays the way Tiger Woods can play around this type of golf course, I would have to agree with a number of other players that second place is what we're doing.

"So we are watching a unique golfer on a unique golf course, and it will be a privilege to play with him," said the Scot, who will be in the final pairing with Woods today.

There are plenty of good golfers right behind at 6-under: Vijay Singh, Jose Maria Olazabal, Brad Faxon, Trevor Immelman, Peter Lonard, Robert Allenby and Scott Verplank. But they would need Woods to stumble, and he hasn't shown signs of stumbling.

He is hitting farther now than he did when he ran away with the 2000 British Open (by eight shots) on the same course. He is 4-for-4 at majors in which he has opened with two rounds in the 60s (most recently the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage).

"We have to play very, very well to contend," Montgomerie said. "It's a bit like [Roger] Federer at Wimbledon. If he plays well, he'll win. And he did, easily."

Woods insists it isn't so easy. Just because he has done it before doesn't mean he will do it again. "Thinking of 2000 is not going to help me hit a draw, a high fade and keep the ball on the ground," he said. "I have to be in the present, here and now. I'm trying to put the ball and place the ball where I need to place it, and that's it."

The thing is, he can drive a few of the par-4 greens, as he did to gain birdies on Nos. 9 and 10. He can reach the par-5s in two, as he did with his two-putt birdies on Nos. 5 and 14 - in a bogey-free round.

Ultimately, the only pertinent "place" for him might be his spot in history. A win here would give him 10 career majors and put him more than halfway to his goal: Nicklaus' gold standard of 18.

"I would have loved to have gone head to head with him in his prime," Woods said with a grin. "I think we would have had a lot of fun."

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