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A magical year starts at home

Something special always seems to happen whenever golf comes home to St. Andrews.

othersports Updated: Jan 01, 2006 23:05 IST
PTI

Something special always seems to happen whenever golf comes home to St. Andrews.
The mystique of the Old Course, where golf has been played for half a millennium, was bound to produce a British Open for the ages. It was to be the final major for Jack Nicklaus, the greatest major champion of them all, and his pose atop the Swilcan Bridge late on Friday afternoon became an indelible image.

But from that sun-baked week at St. Andrews emerged so many moments that defined the 2005 season.

Right after the graceful departure of Nicklaus came the defiant return of Tiger Woods. He silenced critics of his swing changes by winning the Masters in a playoff and then dominating the field at St. Andrews to win by five shots, giving him 10 majors in his quest to break Nicklaus's record of 18.

The biggest turnaround belonged to Colin Montgomerie, who whipped the Scottish fans into a flag-waving frenzy on the weekend at St. Andrews. He was the runner-up, his best finish at a major in eight years, and he returned to St. Andrews in October to win the Dunhill Championship. Montgomerie fell as low as No. 83 in the world ranking, but had risen to No. 8 at year's end.

The surprising fall belonged to Ernie Els, who knew his head was not in the game when he went through the motions at St. Andrews. Turns out that was the last tournament he played for the next four months, as the Big Easy took a big spill during a beach getaway on the Mediterranean, tearing ligaments in his left knee.

Michael Campbell won the US Open at Pinehurst No. 2 to finally fulfil his potential, becoming the first player from New Zealand to win a major since Bob Charles at the 1963 British Open. One year after Phil Mickelson broke through for his first major, he showed he was hungry for more by winning the US PGA Championship at Baltusrol with a flop shot from deep rough that he practised in his backyard as a boy. This one settled a few feet from the cup for a tap-in birdie on the 72nd hole.

The Americans finally found a couple of cups to take home. They won the Presidents Cup when Chris DiMarco made a birdie on the final hole of the final match to beat a strong International team, and they won the Solheim Cup behind 19year-old Paula Creamer, who predicted a US victory and delivered 3 1/2 points.

Annika Sorenstam won the first two legs of the Grand Slam and again ruled the world of women's golf with 11 victories, although the teenagers slowly began to show that the future is now. Creamer won a week before finishing high school. Michelle Wie skipped school to announce she was turning pro, signing deals that approached $10 million. Morgan Pressel spent her summer vacation by nearly winning the US Women's Open and the 17year-old easily earned her US LPGA card for next year, even though she doesn't complete school until May.

The biggest star might have been Ai Miyazato, the 20-year-old pixie from Japan who rarely takes a step without four dozen photographers capturing her every move. She won six times on the Japanese tour, then came to America and won LPGA qualifying by a record 12 shots.

For all those feats, however, the year is defined by the convergence of Nicklaus and Woods at the home of golf. Woods arrived at St. Andrews having already established himself anew at No. 1 in the world, thanks in large part to a chip-in at Augusta National that was sheer magic. Clinging to a one-shot lead over DiMarco, Woods had to pitch to the top of the slope and let it trickle to the hole.

It came off perfectly, the ball making a U-turn at the top of the ridge and slowly heading for the hole. It was losing steam as it approached, hung on the lip for two full seconds to allow the fans to catch their breath, then dramatically dropped for a birdie. He kept everyone in suspense to the end, with bogeys on the last two holes to fall into a playoff, but won with a 15-foot birdie on the first extra hole.

There were no such dramatics at St. Andrews, only sheer dominance. Montgomerie challenged him briefly on Saturday but the 29-year-old American never lost the lead, or control, of the championship.

"I've been criticised for the last couple of years. 'Why would I change my game?' This is why," Woods said. "First, second and first in the last three majors. That's why."

Nicklaus loves the Old Course so much that he decided to make it his final major. The 65-year-old Golden Bear is not one for ceremony, but he indulged thousands of fans who gathered around the 18th hole to witness history at the home of golf. They crammed onto rooftops and balconies, pressed their noses against windows and stood on their toes to see the greatest major champion of them all cross the Swilcan Bridge one last time.

Nicklaus missed the cut but left on his own terms. His final stroke was a 15-foot birdie putt that curled into the side of the cup, a fitting finish for the winner of 18 professional majors. "I knew that hole would move wherever I hit it," Nicklaus said.

Montgomerie was never more pleased to finish runner-up at a major, as it sent him speeding along to his recovery. He won the Dunhill Championship at St. Andrews, nearly captured his first World Golf Championship in San Francisco, and ended the year with his eighth Order of Merit on the European tour.

Retief Goosen had won the last two titles, but while he managed to win four times around the world, his year was defined by surrendering a three-shot lead at the US Open by closing with an 81.

Els swept two events in the Middle East -- Dubai and Qatar -- added a victory in China and returned from knee surgery to win the Dunhill Championship in South Africa. The injury might have served him well, forcing him out of the game to take inventory of where he was and where he wanted to go.

It leads to 2006, which will carry on without Nicklaus -- but with Woods very much in view.

First Published: Jan 01, 2006 23:05 IST