It was always going to come down to these two.
When the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out this year’s Open at Royal St. George’s, which would have concluded Sunday with another name added to the claret jug, officials at the R&A got creative. They created the Open for the Ages, a fictional competition between some of the game’s greats using actual archived footage from past Opens at the most venerable host in the rota: the Old Course at St. Andrews.
The final-round telecast was like traveling in a time machine, as players from various generations put their games on display on a timeless track. There was short game magic from Seve Ballesteros, brute strength from John Daly and accurate irons from Sir Nick Faldo. But in the end, the competition which combined over 10,000 fan votes and various data simulations came down to just two players – and they’re the two you’d expect.
Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods went toe-to-toe on the Old Course, sharing the lead at 12 under heading into the final round. And while others like Ballesteros, Faldo, Tom Watson and Louis Oosthuizen grabbed the lead at various points in the final round, by the time the final group reached the 14th tee they had separated once again. Woods’ birdie there gave him a one-shot lead which he retained with three holes to play, only for Nicklaus to draw even with a birdie on No. 16.
The two were tied heading to the famous Road Hole, where an errant approach from Woods led to a decisive bogey. From there, both players parred the 72nd hole, giving Nicklaus the mythical title at 16 under after a final-round 68, one shot clear of Woods and two ahead of Ballesteros.
The scenario stokes the flames of a generational debate that has swirled for more than 20 years since Woods took the game by storm. Equipment, fitness, competition and various other factors make a fair comparison difficult to navigate. But the opportunity, thanks to deft editing, to put the two greatest players shoulder-to-shoulder along the fairways and greens of perhaps the most famous course in the world, using real action to determine a simulated championship, was a welcome one.
Even against other greats from the last 50 years, Nicklaus and Woods stand above on nearly every metric. Even within the confines of The Open, their records are exemplary: each with three victories, including two apiece at St. Andrews. The oldest course in the world has a habit of elevating the greatest champions, and Nicklaus and Woods are no exceptions.
But the final-round telecast offered a glimpse into some of the differences in how they approached the same terrain. It also showed some striking similarities: areas where both took on aggressive lines across gorse or bunkers, and places where their cerebral nature called for a more conservative approach.
Part of the allure of the Old Course is the blend of skill and art that it requires. It’s a bit of a soft science, with the subtle undulations of the ground often dictating the most prudent strategy. During what would have been Open week, a stretch where the loss of the oldest major championship has been most acutely felt, the Open for the Ages served as a reprieve. It offered a glimpse into the game’s vast and varied history, with some of the greatest artists and tacticians looking to dissect the same familiar plot of Scottish links.
It was a chance to watch Rory McIlroy construct a sizzling 63 as Arnold Palmer took one last stroll over the Swilcan Bridge. It showcased the depth of the game’s history and the brilliance of its greatest champions. And this time, Nicklaus got the bragging rights.