ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (AP) – Jack Nicklaus finally had a few minutes to himself Tuesday, and the British Open felt just like so many of the other 163 major championships he has played over the last 46 years.

No one leaned over the rail and begged for an autograph. Gone for a moment was the rat-a-tat of two dozen cameras going off for every step he took at storied St. Andrews. He walked briskly and without fanfare to the practice range, then took his place among some 20 players to warm up for a practice round on the Old Course.

Nicklaus, finally, was in his element. He wasn’t a legend, just another player.

The trouble for Nicklaus is that this British Open has become one big ceremony, a send-off like no other for the greatest major champion ever. There will be so many tears when he crosses the Swilcan Bridge for the last time that the burn might spill over its banks.

Nicklaus even welled up twice during a news conference Tuesday morning, first as he saw so many familiar faces settle into their seats, then as he was presented with an award from the Association of Golf Writers for his outstanding service to golf.

But the sentiments can wait.

Nicklaus is here to compete, even if the only trophy available to him is a tee time on the weekend. “I’m here as a competitor,” he said. “And we’ll find out whether that competitor can play through to Sunday and try to do the best he can. And once the competition is over for me – obviously, I still look at a scenario when I walk down there late Sunday afternoon – at that point in time, it will be something different.

“It will be looking at my last tournament.” Until the first ball is in the air Thursday morning, the 134th British Open is all about looking back.

For Tiger Woods, that means remembering five years ago, when he dismantled the Old Course with power and putting, never hitting into any of the 112 bunkers for four days and winning by eight shots at 19-under 269, the lowest score in relation to par in major championship history.

Mostly, though, it’s about Nicklaus and a love affair with St. Andrews that began when he first heard his idol, Bobby Jones, talk about the Old Course during their visits each year at the Masters.

“The one thing he said was your golfing career as a champion is not complete unless you win at St. Andrews,” Nicklaus said. “And I always had that in the back of my mind.

“Actually,” he said, pausing to smile, “it was in the front of my mind.”

He is the only American to win the British Open twice at St. Andrews, although that’s not what defines Nicklaus. Thanks to his dominance in the majors – 18 victories, 19 times a runner-up – that became the standard against which careers are measured.

No one did it better, or longer.

The first and last victories in his career were majors – the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont in a playoff against Arnold Palmer, and the 1986 Masters with a 30 on the back nine to beat Greg Norman and Tom Kite.

And it took a dozen more years before anyone looked at Nicklaus as anything other than a threat to win.

“Even when he was 50 to 55, 57, 58, you kept thinking that magic he brings would somehow show up,” David Duval said. “It really wasn’t until he had health problems with his hip and his back that it changed. That’s the magic of Jack.”

Nicklaus thought he crossed the Swilcan Bridge for the last time five years ago – ever the competitor, it was only a begrudging pose atop the stone arch – until the Royal & Ancient arranged for the Open’s return to St. Andrews to coincide with his last year of eligibility.

“He always says he won’t play if he’s not competitive, and that’s the way he is,” Mark Calcavecchia said. “It would be great for golf, and this tournament, if he made the cut and had a good tournament.”

Nicklaus can think of no better place to end his major championship career than St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf. He loves to tell the story about how his father played the Old Course in 1959 when Nicklaus was across the Firth of Forth at Muirfield for the Walker Cup.

The old man thought it was a mess because of the bumps and mounds. Nicklaus loved it immediately, and even now can tick off the names of more than a dozen bunkers, from Cheape’s to Strath, from the Beardies to Hell.

His 1970 victory at St. Andrews was the only time he threw his putter in the air when he won. His second claret jug on the Old Course was the only time he began crying before the tournament was over.

Has he allowed himself to look ahead to that final trip down the 18th fairway?

Nicklaus bristled at that question, again trying to assume his role as one of the 156 players in the field. In the seven previous Opens he played at St. Andrews, he spent almost all of his time on the course or in the hotel. He has yet to experience the charm of the gray old town with its shops and steeples and rich history.

“This is an amazing place, historically,” said Peter Thomson, a five-time Open champion who won 50 years ago at St. Andrews. “It’s sort of the seat of reformation, at least in Britain, and it’s the great seat of learning since 1412. It’s very unique, this place. And the golfers who play professional golf never know.”

That includes Nicklaus, another testament to his focus on the majors.

“I won’t change it any,” he said of his routine. “There’s no way that I’m going to get out and walk around the town when I’m at a golf tournament. I’ve got my times taken up with playing golf. And I hope to come back to St. Andrews someday and maybe come back and walk around the town.

“I understand it’s a very nice place.”

AP-ES-07-12-05 1350EDT

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