Brian Viner: Nicklaus and Watson evoke their 'Duel in the Sun'
Saturday 26 July 2003
At about 3pm on Tuesday, a small but heartfelt cheer rose into the leaden sky over the famous Ailsa course at Turnberry, Ayrshire. A pro-am was taking place as a prelude to the Senior British Open, and what occasioned the modest gallery's cheer was a hole-in-one on Woe-be-Tide, the par-three fourth hole, by none other than Jack Nicklaus. Despite a bursitic hip, a dodgy back, increased girth and failing eyesight, the great man remains eminently capable of rolling back the years.
Two days later it was Tom Watson's turn to roll back the years, returning a first-round 66 to share the tournament lead.
The year everyone keeps rolling back to is 1977, when, in the first Open Championship to be held at Turnberry, Nicklaus and Watson slugged out their spectacular "Duel in the Sun". It is a term more redolent of an old Randolph Scott movie than an encounter on the golf course, yet for any golf enthusiast it powerfully evokes the spectacle of two mid-Westerners with six-irons, not six-shooters. And on Wednesday it was given a physical dimension, as the pair unveiled a new tee marker on the 18th hole, henceforth to be called "Duel in the Sun". Scotland's First Minister, Jack McConnell, was among those looking on and thinking back.
For many of us, the performance of the final pairing in the final round of the 1977 Open is unsurpassed and indeed unsurpassable. There have been many remarkable golfing dramas since; at the Open itself, in the US Masters, in the Ryder Cup. And the game has acquired a modern superhero, in the svelte form of the stupendous Tiger Woods.
But Woods was still holding his rattle, doubtless practising the Vardon grip, when golf's greatest day unfolded. All sports have a greatest day. It is a day touched with genius, but usually also a day which transcends mere spectacle and comes to represent a shift in the balance of power between the world's best and his (or her, or their) heir apparent. In men's tennis it happened at Wimbledon in 1980, in the epic five-set final between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. Even though Borg triumphed, winning the final set 8-6, by winning that incredible fourth set tie-break 18-16 McEnroe served dramatic notice that his era had begun.
In golf, the equivalent day had occurred almost exactly three years earlier. In April 1977 Watson had won the Masters, playing behind Nicklaus and pipping him by birdieing the 72nd hole. At Turnberry in July they were paired together for the last two rounds. Wise old heads reckoned that if it came to a 36-hole shoot-out, Nicklaus would prevail. Some of the game's strongest knees had been known to buckle in his formidable presence. But in Friday's penultimate round his brilliant 65 was matched by Watson.
Even now the statistics of that Open beggar belief. They recorded identical scores of 68, 70 and 65 before Watson beat Nicklaus to the Claret Jug by a shot, scoring a second consecutive 65. Watson finished on 268, Nicklaus on 269. In third place by 10 shots was Hubert Green, whose total of 279 would have been good enough to win the previous year's championship at Royal Birkdale and the following year's championship at St Andrews. When the Open returned to Turnberry, in 1986, Greg Norman won with a 72-hole total of 280. Again, Green's 279 would have won it. Yet Norman beat the field by five clear shots.
It is a little disingenuous to make comparisons between different courses and different summers. The Ayrshire weather that July was unusually benign, Ailsa stripped of many of her usual defences. But that still does not explain why Watson, then aged 27, and Nicklaus, 10 years older, streaked so far ahead of everyone else, except that they were the world's two greatest golfers, one with a foothold on the summit on his way up the mountain, the other with a foothold on his way down.
We all know the story of the final day. Nicklaus forged into an early three-shot lead, and the wise old heads nodded wisely. But Watson drew level. Then Nicklaus regained the lead, but Watson again cancelled it out.
Birdie followed birdie followed birdie. On the 18th tee it was Watson who held the lead, by one. He fired a one-iron down the middle; Nicklaus went for broke with his driver, and ended up beside one of the more impenetrable of Turnberry's gorse bushes. Watson then struck a majestic seven-iron to within two feet of the hole. In the BBC commentary box, Peter Alliss found the mots juste. "Elementary, my dear Watson." But the fat lady was still only gargling.
Nicklaus somehow hacked an eight-iron on to the green, but miles from the hole, then sank what, for my money, is still the most remarkable putt in the history of major championship golf. Watson coolly followed him in. A pair of birdies. Victory to the Kansan by one, nirvana for the rest of us. I wasn't at Turnberry that week, but I was there this week, and heard the cheer that turned the clock back 26 years, and I'm happy enough to settle for that.
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