ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (AP) – Jack Nicklaus watched the final round of the British Open from his home in Florida before heading out to the golf course to watch some of his grandchildren hit balls.

This was simply Nicklaus doing what he loves best, spending time with his family just two days after he retired from competitive golf. He was hardly grooming a champion to stop Tiger Woods’ pursuit of his record 18 professional major titles.

Based on what he saw Sunday at St. Andrews, there might be no stopping Woods, anyway.

“I have to say, that is the best I have seen Tiger swing,” Nicklaus said not long after Woods shot a 2-under 70, the only round under par among the final 14 players who teed off on an Old Course that was fast, firm and fiery.

“Tiger has been working on his game, and he certainly seemed to find it at St. Andrews,” Nicklaus said. “Tiger looked in total control; he never looked like there was a chance for him to lose. It was a pretty awesome performance.”

It was the 10th major title for the 29-year-old Woods, leaving him one behind Walter Hagen and eight away from the benchmark many thought never would be matched, much less broken. Nicklaus was 32 when he won his 10th major title in the 1972 Masters.

“There’s a few people cursing their luck now,” said Colin Montgomerie, who challenged Woods briefly but had to settle for winning the B-flight at this British Open. “But you have to beat Tiger. If he stays fit and healthy … he has 10 of these majors now, and we all know Jack had 18. Can he achieve the impossible? He’s on his way.”

This one had a look of familiarity to it.

Whenever he wins a major by such large margins – five shots over Montgomerie – it raises the question whether Woods is that good or his competition is not up to the task.

“What we’ve seen is that he went ahead of the pack very early in his career,” Royal & Ancient chief executive Peter Dawson said Monday. “There was an element of catching up by other players. He raised the standard. And now, he seems to be stepping forward again. We’ll see if the others step up to the challenge.”

Vijay Singh looked like a beaten man along the back nine of the Old Course, frustrated by his inability to make putts that kept him from being a factor at another major. He is the only player besides Woods to have finished in the top 10 in all three majors this year, but he has finished a combined 21 shots out of the lead.

Ernie Els took himself out of this British Open early with an opening 74, then wasted a good finish with a double bogey from the Beardies bunkers on the 14th. He walked quietly across the street to a parking lot next to St. Andrews Bay, got into a black Mercedes and drove away.

Phil Mickelson can’t seem to recapture the magic of his 2004 season in the majors, when he came within five shots of winning them all. His only top 10 this year was at the Masters, where he finished 15 shots behind. Retief Goosen started the final round at St. Andrews three shots out of the lead and shot 39 on the front nine.

Sergio Garcia gave Woods credit, but it hardly rolled off his tongue.

“Good for him,” he said. “But I know what I can do, and I’m looking forward to doing that. I feel my game is right up there.”

Putting clearly was the key, as it always is in golf, and Woods was tied for first in that statistic at St. Andrews. He ended each practice round on the green, placing two white tees just wide enough apart to fit his putter in between, stroking 5-foot putts with his left arm behind his back.

Equally daunting was his ball striking. Except for the four bunkers and two gorse bushes he found over four days, he appeared to have total control of his swing.

“That was one of the best warm-up sessions I’ve ever had in my life,” Woods said. “I wanted to carry it to the golf course, and I did. My only bad shot was on 13, my second shot, and I pulled it 10 feet. Other than that, the golf was hit so flush all day, every shot. It was one of those rounds that I will be thinking about for a long time.”

And he gave everyone else plenty to think about.

Woods doesn’t just win majors, he wins big.

It was the fourth time he has won a major by at least five shots, the most blowouts by any major champion.

This one might have looked paltry compared with his 12-shot win in 1997 at Augusta National, his 15-shot victory in the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, or his eight-shot win at St. Andrews five yeas ago. Even so, there is a short list of players who win majors in a runaway.

Nicklaus only did it twice, by nine shots at the 1965 Masters and by seven at the 1980 PGA Championship. Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan and Nick Faldo are the only other players who have twice won a major by at least five.

In the bigger picture, it was the third time in his career Woods has had a multiple-major season. Nicklaus holds the record, winning two majors in five years. Hogan also had three years winning at least two majors.

Woods will be the prohibitive favorite at Baltusrol next month in the PGA Championship, a long course that ends with two par 5s and likely will be right up his alley. That was the New Jersey course where Nicklaus won two of his U.S. Open titles, so more links to Nicklaus await.

With every major he wins, Woods gets closer to a standard that once seemed it would last forever.

AP-ES-07-18-05 1647EDT

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