ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Jack Nicklaus (search) had to go out this way, the ball curling into the cup for a birdie, the putter thrust skyward with his left hand one last time at the birthplace of golf.
Farewell, Golden Bear. While Tiger Woods (search) threatened to turn another British Open into a rout Friday, Nicklaus faded into retirement on a stirring, tear-filled day at St. Andrews, making birdie on the final hole of his competitive career.
"I knew the hole would move wherever I hit it," Nicklaus quipped.
The last stroke of the ball didn't matter on the scoreboard — the 14-footer gave Nicklaus an even-par 72 and a 3-over 147 for the two rounds, not nearly good enough to make the cut.
But it meant everything to the fans who jammed every nook and cranny of the historic 18th hole, straining to get a look at the greatest championship player in the sport's history. Even some of his fellow players came out on the porch of the Royal & Ancient Club (search), clapping for Nicklaus every step of the way.
"Words are not really enough for Jack," three-time Open champion Nick Faldo (search) said. "They should make him out of gold and stick a little Jack on every tee box."
Nicklaus propped up his left leg on the famed Swilcan Bridge in the middle of the 18th fairway, blowing kisses and waving to an adoring crowd. Then he called up son Steve, his caddie, and playing partners Tom Watson and Luke Donald — and their caddies — for a group shot.
Once that was done, Nicklaus walked the rest of the fairway all alone, wiping away the inevitable tears as he approached his ball, just short of the green.
Nicklaus putted through the "Valley of Sin," the ball skidding past the flag. After watching Watson — a fierce rival in the 1970s — and Donald putt out, Nicklaus leaned over to study the green, crouched over the ball facing left of the cup and calmly knocked in the sort of putt that helped define some of the signature moments of his career.
Woods arrived at the 18th a half-hour later, ready to pick up the torch that Nicklaus left behind.
The golfer who grew up wanting to be like Jack — and then surpass him — yanked his drive over by the first tee and had to settle for par, failing to beat Nicklaus on one hole, at least.
But Woods cruised to a 67 for an 11-under 133 at the midway point of a tournament that is his to lose.
Don't count on that happening. At this rate, Woods is more likely to eclipse his record-setting performance in 2000, when his 19-under total was the lowest score in relation to par in major tournament history. He ran away from the field for an eight-stroke win.
A few big names attempted to make a run at him. Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson shot 67 and still find themselves eight strokes behind. Vijay Singh posted his second straight 69 and faced a daunting five-shot deficit.
"I need to go pretty low on Saturday to get in contention," Mickelson said. "I'm not quite in contention yet."
No one in the clubhouse was within five strokes of the lead when Woods finished. But his quest for a second major title this year and 10th in his career took a backseat until the weekend.
This day was for saying goodbye to the 65-year-old Nicklaus.
"You have to admire everything," Woods said. "No one played the majors as well. No one was so consistent for so long. He's the greatest who's ever lived in our sport."
Later, the two crossed paths in the interview room.
"Nice playing," Nicklaus said, extending his right hand.
"Thank you, sir," Woods replied as they shook hands.
"You know, that's my best round of the year!" Nicklaus said proudly.
"Really?" Woods said.
They exchanged a few more words, then Nicklaus left the podium.
"Good luck to you," he said, patting Woods on the shoulder as he walked away.
Nicklaus had hoped to put off his exit until Sunday, arriving at St. Andrews intent on making the cut. But the booming drives, precise irons and clutch putting that led the way to 18 major titles had him with each passing year.
Nicklaus rolled an approach at No. 2 into one of the Old Course's 112 bunkers, leading to a bogey, and knew by the penultimate hole that his tournament — and career — were over.
"I stopped being a golfer," Nicklaus said. "Maybe I should have tried that more often because I birdied the final hole."
With a relatively light breeze rustling along the Scottish coast, Woods had plenty of birdies — five in a bogey-free round that transformed the Old Course into something resembling a neighborhood muni.
He barely broke a sweat, rolling in a couple of 5-footers for birdie and picking up two more with mere two-putts. The first bobble was a three-putt at No. 12, but that was still good enough for par — Woods drove the green on the 348-yard hole.
Another short birdie putt at 14 and the rout was on.
Colin Montgomerie shot 66, which might be good enough to get him in the final group Saturday with Woods. But the Scotsman will start the round with four daunting strokes to make up.
He didn't even object to the premise that everyone is playing for second.
"I have to go along with that," Montgomery said. "A lot can happen around here. But we all know if Tiger Woods plays the way Tiger Woods can play around this golf course, I'd have to agree."
With Woods taking all the drama out of the actual tournament, Nicklaus had plenty of room to shine. The crowds grew bigger at each hole, the British fans saluting a golfer they considered one of their own.
Nicklaus won the second of three British Opens at St. Andrews in 1970, flinging his club into the air in the most stunning display of emotion in his career.
He won again on the Old Course eight years later.
Finally, he returned to call it a career.
"I've been asked, 'What would you do differently?'" Nicklaus said. "I can't imagine anything."