Tony Jacklin: 'The best week of my golf life - winning the hardest major'

The last European to triumph in the US Open - 36 years ago - tells James Corrigan how his ambition to be the best drove him on
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All of a sudden the sun had remembered where Scotland was, and with his usual sense of impeccable timing Tony Jacklin was there last week sitting in the hotel that juts on to the 18th fairway of the Old Course, looking out over the famous beach. If ever there was a bay window worthy of the name it is the one in the Rusacks at St Andrews.

"You know, it all looks a bit bloody different to the last time I was here," said the 61-year-old with a smile as he recalled the Open scenes of 10 months ago, the last tournament he will ever play in. "Ah, the memories, the memories," he adds in a voice half Peter Alliss, half Scunthorpe.

Jacklin's good mood is admir-able, as he could easily have been forgiven for grabbing those bushy quiffs which have always framed his avuncular face and violently shaking his head to rid his mind of all those damned memories. For after a week of traversing Great Britain to promote his latest autobiography, after book signings, radio shows, talks in theatres and endless natters in bars, the Jacklin anecdote bank must have resembled the vaults after Bonnie and Clyde had been to town. But the old boy was ready for one more.

"Go on then," he said, resigning himself to the questions he just knew were coming. "The US Open. That's soon, isn't it? Ask me why no Brit, no European even, has won since I did, 36 years ago."

Jacklin can spot a British pressman around a par-five dogleg. He claims to have been dug up more times than the Road Hole bunker, not 400 yards from the chair he was occupying. And the rake marks are just as obvious. "Honestly, one of the main reasons I left for Florida in the early Seventies was because of the English tabloids," he said. "In the US, they write what I say and what I mean. They don't hunt for double meanings, they don't take a statement and make something of it that wasn't intended."

At the risk of providing Mr A Jacklin with his final piece of evidence in the case against the Fourth Estate, the plaintiff did declare that it never, ever got any better than winning at Hazeltine in 1970. "That was the best week of golf I ever had in my life," he told the Independent On Sunday, exclusively as it happens, having always hailed his first of two majors at The Open at Lytham the year before as being the absolute pinnacle.

For the record - and it was a record until some upstart called Tiger Woods started riding roughshod through the history books - Jacklin won that US Open by seven shots. It is a startling statistic, made all the more hair-raising by the fact that he was 25 at the time, yet was blessed with the nerve to lead in all four rounds. It would be fair to call it a one-off, even if any of his countrymen had managed to get within a third of a century of replicating it.

"Yeah, it does amaze me that none of our guys have won since," he admitted. "Especially as before me there were 50 years going all the way back to Ted Ray's victory [the Jerseyman who won in Ohio in 1920]. So in some 80-odd years you have little old lonely me in the middle. Why? Well, with respect to the other majors, the US Open is definitely the hardest to win, and some of it must be about being in the right place at the right time. But in truth, I just don't know."

Jacklin does know, though - or perhaps that should be "seems to know", to those of us paid to weed out the double meanings. When he analyses his triumphs and what propelled him from such poor beginnings, it is impossible not to relate it to his modern-day successors.

"What helped me more than anything in getting to the point where for that month in 1970 I had those two Open trophies on my mantelpiece, was that when I was a steelworker's kid beating ball after ball in Scunthorpe, my ambition was not just to be a great golfer but the best golfer in the world. If I hadn't had that mindset, I couldn't have sustained the kind of pressure involved in the last day of Hazeltine, when I had a four-shot lead and was afraid as hell that I was about to be branded the biggest choker of all time. It's funny, because Nicklaus once told me that the majors are the easiest tournaments to win. Why? Because Jack believed that 90 per cent of players who enter don't really believe they can win.

"Most players out there really just want to be a pro, keep their playing privileges on say the US Tour and so be guaranteed millions of dollars. They just aren't prepared to stand the kind of heat that majors provide. And just appearing confident is no good. When dear old Bert Yancey lost a US Open play-off to Lee Trevino, Palmer said to me: 'I didn't think Yancey would win; he was talking too much. He was trying to get rid of the pressure. But you can't talk it out, you've got to take it inside your gut'. Arnie was right. That all applies more than ever today."

Jacklin is mentioning no names (why should he? He has got in enough trouble in his book for taking to task the reputations of his agent, the so-called Godfather of sports agents, Mark McCormack, and the former European Tour chief executive, Ken Schofield). And in all probability he has none in mind. He is not concerned so much with the failure of individuals, or even that of whole continents, but more with an inherently defeatist attitude he sees throughout his sport. "It makes me laugh when players say nowadays: 'But we're playing in the Tiger era - it's hard to win a major'. Well I was playing the Nicklaus era, and that was just as bloody hard, I can assure them."

Of course, it was this shameless disrespect of reputation that made him a great Ryder Cup captain - arguably the greatest - and he is quite rightly proud of the change in attitude he instilled, not just in his team but more so in the authorities, whom he convinced that for Europe to be taken seriously they needed to employ those two transatlantic forces of the time: a) Concorde; and b) Seve. "Persuading Ballesteros to play in 1983, after he was stupidly banned in 1981, was I believe the moment that saved the Ryder Cup," Jacklin said. "That is no exaggeration. It was dead on the vine. We got smoked in 1981. He was my general to get it back."

It has almost been Europe's for keeps ever since, although Jacklin will be at Dublin for the renewal in September and expects a stronger US than ever.

"Woosie [Ian Woosnam, the European captain] must go with his heart, rely on his experience and listen to no one but himself as he makes snap decisions, because it's going to be tough," he said. "We've always criticised America for not having team spirit, for having their own private jets over there and saying things like: 'Hang on, I don't want to come to that team meeting'. But at last year's President's Cup I saw a camaraderie in their team I've never seen before. They were a unit, and I'm sure Woosie's spotted it. And if you haven't, Woosie, I'm telling you."

In effect Jacklin is advising Woosnam to listen to no one, except perhaps Jacklin - and that he can laugh when this irony is pointed out says something about the man. The sometimes destructive honesty that has characterised his entire life fairly pours out of his book, most of all in dealing with the thorny issue of his money troubles. Wiping the slate clean has long been whispered to have been all too necessary when it came to Jacklin and his finances, but he is candid about the mistakes [even if he claims the majority of them were McCormack's].

Now he has reached a serene and solvent plateau, helped by the love of a second good woman, Astrid (his first wife, Vivien, died in 1988 of a brain haemorrhage) and of a latest venture that ties in quite nicely with his long-held belief that goodness will always pay. In 1969 at Birkdale, Nicklaus conceded a putt of around two feet to Jacklin that meant the Ryder Cup was halved, and now a course designed by Nicklaus stands near Jacklin's home in Florida as testament to a glorious act of sportsmanship. It is called "The Concession".

"I bolted awake this one night," said Jacklin explaining the impetus for the billion-dollar golf and housing complex. "Just like that. Jack and I. The link. A project in honour of a moment. And you know, it's rekindled my enjoyment of playing golf purely for fun. I've done competing seriously, but since the course opened in January I play about twice a week with my son Sean. I can't get out there enough."

Eight grandchildren [with another two on the way] dictate that and, as proof, next week he is travelling to Singapore on grandparent duties just when the US Open is getting under way. "It's a 20-hour flight or more, so I'm going to take a laptop to keep in touch with what's going on at Winged Foot," he said. "Who knows, this might be the end of the 36-year itch, and I truly hope so. Sergio [Garcia] is certainly good enough to do it, but you can't fluke this one. As I've said, you have to be able to stand the heat."

So the headline should read "Jacklin warns Sergio not to bottle it"? You could almost hear him sigh as you typed it.

Tony Jacklin - The Autobiography (Simon & Schuster, £18.99)

Life & Times

NAME: Anthony Jacklin.

BORN: 7 August 1944, Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire.

VITAL STATS: 5ft 10in, 12st 12lb.

EARLY DOORS: Apprentice steel worker; assistant pro at Potters Bar GC under Bill Shankland; turned pro in 1962.

TITLES: The Open 1969: first British winner for 18 years. US Open '70: first British winner for 50 years; first for 16 years to hold both titles. US PGA: 4 wins: first Briton to win PGA title outside majors, Jacksonville Open '68. European Tour: 22 wins.

RYDER CUP: Won 13, lost 14, halved 8. Captain four times; led Europe to victory in 1985 - first for 28 years - and '87 - first on American soil - and a draw in '89.

HONOURS: OBE 1970, CBE '90.