This was one time Luke Donald didn’t mind taking 45 minutes to play a 357-yard hole. He was on the 18th hole at St. Andrews, and the company he kept that Friday afternoon in 2005 could not have been better.
Donald played with Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, giving him an unobstructed view for the farewell of golf’s greatest champion. Not only was it the final round for Nicklaus at St. Andrews, he closed his incomparable career with his 164th and final appearance in a major.
Donald and Nicklaus had sponsorship deals with the Royal Bank of Scotland, and Donald thought he might get the pairing.
“They came to me and … not warned me, but asked if I would be interested in playing with Jack in his last Open,” Donald said. “I didn’t take me long to think about it. Even though it can be a distraction — and it was in certain parts — it was a totally different atmosphere. It was a treat to play with him and experience the admiration everyone had for Jack and what he had done for the game.
“The last few holes, every window was filled with people watching a legend.”
Ian Baker-Finch knows the feeling.
He’s not sure why his name was chosen to play with Arnold Palmer when the King bid farewell at the home of golf in 1995.
Baker-Finch won The Open in 1991 at Royal Birkdale, but his game was starting to slide. And so while it was an honor that the R&A chose him and Peter Baker of England to play alongside Palmer, there was no shortage of nerves.
“I was in a funk and I was trying to figure it out,” Baker-Finch said Tuesday. “And I remember thinking how hard it was going to be to figure it out playing before 50,000 people who were with Arnie.”
But what a memory. And what an artifact.
Palmer gave Baker-Finch the golf ball he used over the final two holes that year, and then signed it for him.
“I have the last one he played his last hole with at St. Andrews,” Baker-Finch said.
Few images in golf are as indelible as Palmer and Nicklaus posing one last time as they cross the Swilcan Bridge.
Next up is Tom Watson, who is playing in his 41st and final Open next week at St. Andrews. Watson is a five-time champion, the only player to win the claret jug on five courses, four of them in Scotland, though not at St. Andrews. He is beloved in the old country.
The task for R&A chief Peter Dawson and his staff is to find the right company for Watson — although the final crossing of the Swilcan Bridge could very well be on a Sunday. Watson was 8 feet away from winning the Open just six years ago at Turnberry. He made the cut last year at Royal Liverpool.
It won’t be Tiger Woods, who has had a frosty relationship with his fellow Stanford alum. And it won’t be Phil Mickelson, who called out Watson for his job as Ryder Cup captain during the closing news conference at Gleneagles last September.
Such matters require thought, and Dawson wasn’t tipping his hand.
Yes, it can be a distraction. That’s usually outweighed by the privilege of witnessing how much one player can endear himself to so many.
For his final U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Nicklaus was joined by David Gossett and Paul Lawrie. The USGA typically puts the defending champion with the U.S. Amateur champion (Gossett) and British Open champion (Lawrie). The defending U.S. Open champion was Payne Stewart, who died in a plane crash the previous October. Nicklaus was given that honor.
“If ever there’s a defending champion at Pebble Beach, it should be Nicklaus,” said David Fay, the USGA executive director at the time.
More curious was Palmer’s swan song at Oakmont for his final U.S. Open. He played his final two rounds with Rocco Mediate and John Mahaffey. Mediate, like Palmer, grew up in western Pennsylvania. But Mahaffey? He won the PGA Championship, the major that kept Palmer from the career Grand Slam, and he won it at Oakmont of all places.
“Nobody could pick up on Mahaffey,” Fay said.
Turns out there was a club member at Oakmont named Jack Mahaffey who was on the USGA executive committee and was close friend with Palmer. Fay said the third player in Palmer’s group was chosen because of his surname.
Augusta National, meanwhile, marches to its own beat.
Nicklaus didn’t announce that 2005 was going to be his final Masters, which might explain why the six-time champion finished his final round on the ninth hole.
“I’ve had my time at Augusta. I don’t need a lot of fanfare for that,” Nicklaus said before the tournament. He played with Jay Haas and Shingo Katayama.
Palmer’s final Masters in 2004 was documented from the time he arrived. He played the first two rounds with U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Nathan Smith, who is from western Pennsylvania.
And with Bob Estes.
“Everybody loves Arnold Palmer, and he knows everyone,” Estes said. He would hit his second shot and walk over to the gallery ropes almost every time. The people would get so caught up and enamored with Arnold they would forget Nathan and I were still playing.”
Was it worth it?
“I’d volunteer to do it again,” Estes said.