'If our boys don't win it's because they're not good enough...'

The USPGA returns to the site of Tony Jacklin's greatest win this week. He tells James Corrigan why Britain's finest may come up short once again
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The Independent Online

The gooey memories are being summoned thick and probably a trifle too fast for Tony Jacklin, the British golfing Godfather who truly should be a Sir. Last month it was 40 years since his Open win; next month it is the same anniversary of the most cherished moment in Ryder Cup history; this week the majors drop in again on Hazeltine, the venue of his outrageous US Open victory.

No wonder they say that when your dotage arrives the milestones proceed to whizz past like speed cameras on a motorway. So many flashbacks, so little time to deduce their significance.

Of course, the 65-year-old has rather more justification to look in his rear-view mirror than the rest of us; particularly now, four decades on from what remains the most staggering 12-month run in any British golfer's career. It was why such a fuss was made of him when he hosted last week's Farmfoods British Par 3 Championship at Nailcote Hall.

Except somebody always ruins it, always has to remind you of what was once possible and when you're wrinkled and grey and on a golf course that somebody is invariably an enthusiastic young relative. In Jacklin Snr's case they were two of his sons Sean, 17 and Warren, 36. Both left the old boy trailing on that Par 3 scoreboard and both sniggered into their gloves as they did so.

"Oh, I don't play golf any more," said Jacklin , perched on a suitably austere leather seat in the clubhouse. "I play maybe 15 times a year. And when I do it's just to check how Sean's getting on. Sean's the best out of the lot of us. His handicap's plus three and he wants to become a pro."

When a proud golfing father starts to croon about his teenager's prowess it is advisable to begin running and not stop until at least the third green. Naturally, Jacklin is different, if not so much for his age (he was in his late 40s when he and his second wife, Astrid, had Sean) then certainly for his insight and frankness. "I've told Sean that the game of golf owes him nothing just because he's my son," he said. "And I've also told him how bloody hard it will be. I haven't painted a romantic picture. Yes, he may have the talent, but does he have the discipline? Well, we don't know that yet. In the case of Warren, he didn't. He is a wonderful lad who has a wonderful life in Germany managing his courses. It just wasn't for him. Sean says he is intent on following in my footsteps. We shall see."

Jacklin says if Sean is lacking anything it is the same as what most of the current professionals are lacking. "The feel," he said. "It is why I was so keen for him to play here this week. Yeah, his long game is fantastic, but it's what happens when you get within 80 yards or so, when you have to land the ball on the sixpence. Sean's distance perspective isn't what it should be. Everything is done exactly by the yardage book nowadays. It's funny, I was with the great old Tommy Horton here on Tuesday and he had one of those distance finders. I said, 'Keep that thing away from me around here'. I've always believed the human mind to be the best computer in the world. When Tommy and I were growing up we didn't have yardage books or markers. We had to do it by eye. Back then, I wouldn't need anyone or anything to tell me what club it should be or how hard I should be hitting it. It was all feel. Tom Watson showed how important 'feel' is the other week."

It is fair to say Jacklin was impressed with his friend's performance at Turnberry as he sat their goggle-eyed in his Florida living room. "I watched every bloody ball," he said. "I wrote to Tom straight afterwards and told him, 'That was the greatest single golfing performance in the history of the game'. On TV they stopped short of saying it. Perhaps they were scared of what they were seeing – it was so big, there was a reticence to acknowledge how big. I told Tom that it doesn't mean anything that he lost in a play-off. Nobody was better than him in the 72 holes. Nobody. Remarkable."

Inevitably, Jacklin is not so effusive about the British challenge, despite three of his countrymen earning top-five placings. Although, he was rather taken with one of the home performances. "Chris Wood – I don't think he has been given due recognition," said Jacklin. "To have finished fifth and third in your only two majors to date as a 21-year-old is really something." And Lee Westwood, who also claimed minor podium honours? "To be honest, Lee was found wanting," he replied. "He had a great chance and didn't take it. Opportunities don't come along much better than that. I admire Lee's ability and his persistence and I hope he wins one. But who can say he will after that?"

Jacklin is only opining what many believe, as they look at Britain's gilded generation and cry, "Where is the missing major?" There is no wailing from Jacklin. "I don't do all this, 'Wouldn't it be such a shame if one of this crop doesn't win a major'. I don't care where they're from – England, China, Timbukthree. It wouldn't be a shame, just because they're British. If they don't do it, it's because they're not good enough. I'm tough, when it comes to things like that."

He is especially tough when it comes to the theory that all the money, the fame, the attendants who pamper to the modern professionals' every whim, make it all so easy to sit back in this cosiest of comfort zones. "Don't see it and never have," he said. "If that's what some players want, then fine. But if you want something strongly enough nothing will take you off the tracks. Look at Tiger [Woods] he has more distractions than anyone. But he has decided what he wants to do and that's it. Whatever it takes. He will reinvent himself every week if he has to.

"It was like when a young Gary Player first went over to America and announced to Doug Sanders, 'I'm going to win all four majors'. Doug has told me there was no doubt whatsoever in Gary's voice. There can't be. You have to put being a major champion in your mind first – so when the chance presents itself you're ready for it and all it entails. You never know if a player has that. Yeah, you lot might go up to a young player now and say, 'How much d'you want to win a major?' And he'll reply, 'Ooh yes, very, very much'. But you can't see into his heart. And you can't see into his mind."

It was a feeling deep inside Jacklin's stomach which informed him just what it would mean to win that US Open 39 years ago. "I felt sick going into that last round at Hazeltine with a four-stroke lead," he recalled. "I bogeyed the seventh and eighth and that was as nervous as I've ever been. But then I holed that long birdie putt on the ninth and I felt all the tension go. It was like a valve being released. That's it, I knew I'd win. I still had to go ahead and do it, but I suddenly felt comfortable. People often ask me if that was the best I ever played? How couldn't it be? I won by seven strokes, extending my lead on all four days. It doesn't get any better than that. In 10 lifetimes it wouldn't get better than that."

If only the reaction had matched the performance. "No I don't think my win was given the credit it warranted," Jacklin said. "I think in America they didn't want to accept that some little foreigner had been good enough to come over and win their national championship so they downplayed it. There was a story about one of their professionals, Dave Hill, saying all the course lacked was cows or something, so they gave that the headlines. Hazeltine was a major test then just as it will be this time around. In Britain, it was probably a bit different as the public could not have known how big it was, winning the hardest major. Saying that, before me there were nearly 50 years going all the way back to the victory of the last Brit [Willie MacFarlane] and now there's going to be at least a 40-year gap the other side. So 90 years with little old lonely me in the middle. Not too bad is it?"

Not too bad? It's barely credible. A 25-year-old crossing the Atlantic for just his second US Open and winning by a record margin? Put this alongside his other achievements and then wonder why Buckingham Palace recently decided to make Nick Faldo the second golfing knight after the "Maestro", Henry Cotton.

1) At Lytham in 1969 Jacklin became the first home winner of the Open in 18 years. 2) At the Ryder Cup in September 1969, he gained the half with Jack Nicklaus – who famously conceded Jacklin's two-footer on the last – which meant Great Britain and Ireland avoided defeat for just the second time in 14 matches. 3) As a captain, Jacklin handed America their first Ryder Cup beating in 28 years on away soil – and then their first ever defeat at home.

The list could go on and on and although Sir Nick's own accomplishments cannot be argued with, surely it is not too disrespectful to question whether without a Jacklin there would have been a Faldo? Or even for that matter a Woosnam, Lyle, Montgomerie, Westwood...? Shouldn't he have rather more royal recognition for his efforts than a CBE?

"I don't mind if you write that," he laughed. "But I'm really not bitter. I texted Nick straight away when I found out about his knighthood to congratulate him. He deserved it, regardless of whatever I may or may not deserve. Look, we all know the establishment works in their own way. Over the years I suppose I have been outspoken at times against the golfing authorities. But I don't regret a thing I said. I hope by speaking up and making a stand I made things better. So I'm not going to worry about any of it. Those majors I won, those Ryder Cups, they can't take any of them away. They're in the locker for keeps. It's like I tell Sean. There's nothing you can't do if you want it badly enough and are prepared to work at it hard enough. Absolutely nothing."

Life and times of Tony Jacklin

*Born: 7 August 1944, Scunthorpe.

Early life: Apprentice steel worker; assistant professional at Potters Bar; turned pro in 1962.

*Titles: The Open, 1969; US Open, 1970. European Tour: 22 wins. PGA Tour: 4 wins (first Briton to win PGA title outside majors).

*Ryder Cup: Won 13, lost 14, halved 8. Captain four times; led Europe to victory in 1985 – first for 28 years – and 1987 – first on American soil.

*Later life: Made comeback on Seniors Tour and in 1994 wins first event in 12 years. Retires from full-time competition in 1999 and designs alongside Jack Nicklaus, "The Concession" course to commemorate the 1969 Ryder Cup.

*Family: His first wife Vivien, with whom he had five children, died in 1988. Now married to Astrid, with whom he has one child.

*Honours: OBE 1970, CBE 1990.

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