Duel in the Sun: The epic battle between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus

At Turnberry in 1977, golf – and the spirit of sportsmanship itself – were taken to heights rarely seen before or since. James Corrigan recalls the 'Duel in the Sun', an epic battle between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus that will live for ever on the famous links

Tom Watson
Saturday 11 July 2009 00:00

Of course, there are other British sporting venues which will always be inextricably linked to a year. "Wembley '66", "Headingley '81", "Iffley Road '54" – all three evoke images of moments that will live for ever and a fortnight. Yet can any of those venues boast of staging the finest battle of all time in their sport? "Turnberry '77" can.

Obviously, there are those in America who disagree. Indeed, the 2005 film The Greatest Game Ever Played laid claim to the title in unashamed and brilliant fashion. But whereas Bill Paxton's biographical masterpiece was as much concerned with the class prejudices bashed down by the stunning triumph in the 1913 US Open of the amateur Francis Ouimet, the Duel in the Sun is a simple golfing tale about two of the game's supreme competitors staging the game's supreme competition – Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. With a little bit of help from the red blob in the sky, naturally.

Certainly, the clamour since to anoint the 106th Open as the game's best major has been as continuous as it has been widespread. (No less than Dan Jenkins, the esteemed Sports Illustrated columnist who will be covering his 201st major next week, called it "the best golf – ever"). And the stats have done nothing to contain the hero worship. Watson's 268 total broke the Open record by eight shots. Nicklaus himself broke it by seven. Hubert Green, in third, was a further 10 shots back. "I won this golf tournament," commented Green so famously. "I don't know what game those other two guys were playing."

Yes, whenever present-day professionals turn up at the Championships they accept they will be sharing the hallowed fairways not just with the other 155 professionals but also with the legends who swung there before. No doubt that can be annoying. But not this time, not at Turnberry. Above all, they will just feel grateful to be at last allowed to play there.

Tiger Woods, Padraig Harrington and the majority of the under-40s on tour have yet to set competitive spikes on the Ailsa Course, which may seem odd considering it is regularly voted as the premier layout in Britain and in the top three in the world. Why has it not hosted the Claret Jug since 1994? Predominantly because of an argument about Tarmac. The Royal and Ancient decided transport links into the Turnberry Hotel resort were not good enough and, quite understandably, took steps to ensure they were. Hence Turnberry having staged just three Opens. But in the terms of the quality-quantity argument this most scenic of links on Scotland's south-west coast renders that debate a certifiable no-brainer.

Each and every one of next week's fancied participants will have watched the tapes of '77. Harrington confesses to having done so on numerous occasions and has revealed he was most inspired by the tenacity of the duo. Woods, meanwhile, would doubtless have sat there in his den and instantly recognised that even in defeat Nicklaus bore every hallmark of the "greatest ever". And then there is Ian Poulter. "Wow!" was his reaction when he first set sight on Watson's outfit of that final day and in the time it took to digest that putrid mixture of lime green and gold stripes a few of his own sartorial crimes were plotted.

Watson will doubtless be more soberly dressed when he returns to Turnberry these next few days (he always pointed out he was paid to wear the garish Jantzen clothing range). This will be his penultimate Open before he passes the 60-year-old cut-off point next year. Watson knows it will be nostalgic. "Any time you see the big white hotel up on the hillside, it makes the memory banks release some great memories," he says. "Obviously the time in '77 was the greatest. Jack says he doesn't remember anything about the last day. I remember every one of his shots. And every one of mine."

If Nicklaus is being honest (he isn't) he would be in a tiny minority in golfing circles. Thanks to the BBC's pictures and more recently a marvellous detailing of the week, its build-up and its influence, the details of the folklore will remain there for posterity. In Duel In The Sun (Bison Books, £10.99), Michael Corcoran diligently and expertly outlines the confluence of factors which created this perfect golfing storm.

Best to start with the weather, for if the duel between Watson and Nicklaus had long been forecasted, the sun definitely had not been. "If you can see the Ailsa Craig it is about to rain," so goes the saying of the Turnberry caddies concerning the huge rock lying 16 miles out in the Firth of Clyde. "And if you can't see the Ailsa Craig, it already is raining." In the summer of '77, however, rain had become a stranger and when they pitched up for Turnberry's maiden Open the pros discovered a course Ben Crenshaw described as "burnished".

In truth, it was just as the R&A would have all their venues – "fast and firm". The Americans were, and still are used, to playing "target golf", but, apart from the odd sprinkler, the only thing watered in Turnberry that week was the odd Englishman's whisky. The blazing sun might have reduced the tall rough to wispy long straws but the challenge was no easier. Here was a veritable dustbowl of the vanities.

Yet there was rain that week. Great sheets of the stuff on the Friday afternoon when thunder and lightning forced a suspension.

It was as if the gods were taking an intermission between "Act One: Golf Tournament" and "Act Two: Golf Duel". Those rods of electrical current truly did burn a demarcation line in that Championship.

Up until those rumbles more than two were deemed to be in contention. In fact, Nicklaus and Watson did not even form the final group of that third round (Opens began on Wednesdays in those days). Both had shot 69-70 and were one behind the leader, Roger Maltbie, who partnered Green. Meanwhile, yet another American, Mark Hayes, had shown what was possible with a second-round 63, lower than anyone else had ever shot in the Open's history.

But then the claps arrived and soon so did the deafening applause which was to accompany Watson and Nicklaus all the way into their Saturday night fever. The pair were actually at the furthest point away from the clubhouse when the hooter was sounded and were forced to scamper down the cliff behind the eighth green and take shelter among the rocks. Cue just one of many famous photographs of the week as Watson, Nicklaus, and their caddies stood there, smoking and chatting as the waves crashed all around them.

What was said during that half-hour has never been reported, although it is too tempting not to imagine one turning to the other and saying: "C'mon, it's fireworks time." Whatever, their play certainly proceeded to sparkle thereafter and with a procession of birdies they went on to post 65s. They had duly rocketed clear. Ben Crenshaw, three shots back in third might have believed he still had chances but nobody else did. This was Watson versus Nicklaus. Pure and simple.

All roads led to Turnberry that Saturday morning. Well, one did. And it was in that traffic jam – so horrendous that a few of the pros were given police escorts through farms – where the arguments would rage. Big Jack or Major Tom?

In the past it would have be a given. Nicklaus already had 14 majors and the mere sight of him on the first tee had usually been enough to turn any would-be rivals to jelly. But Watson – 10 years his junior at 27 – was different. Not only had he won the Open at Carnoustie two years before, but he had prevailed over Nicklaus at the Masters just three months previously. Nicklaus may well have been the greatest ever but at that moment Watson was the best around. Saying that, when Nicklaus burst three shots clear after four holes it appeared class would have its day over form. But Watson hit back; first with a 15-footer for birdie on the fifth; then with a "shot of the day" driver off the fairway on the par-five seventh; then with a 20-footer on the eighth. The duel was very much on.

The crowd could not fail to sense it and the excitement soon bubbled over. "They were getting very, very vocal," recalled Crenshaw. "They knew they were seeing something rare, something beyond anything they had ever seen before." The reality is no one had ever seen it before, not even Nicklaus. On the ninth, the ropes broke and the fans spilt on to the fairway. Nicklaus's caddie, Andrea Argea, was to later admit that in the ensuing mêlée "I feared for my man"; and his man was worried enough to refuse to play on until the galleries retreated back behind their cordon. Watson waited with him; for a full 15 minutes. And then they resumed.

Again Nicklaus forged ahead, opening up a two-stroke advantage by the 13th. Again Watson, oblivious to what everybody else in attendance was taking to be the inevitable, hit back. First with a 12-footer on the 13th, but then most notably on the par-three 15th. With Nicklaus 12 feet from the cup and Watson six yards off the green faced with a 60-foot examination, here was a classic matchplay moment. Watson holed it, the ball causing the flagstick to shiver as it fell. Inevitably Nicklaus missed his. On to the 16th tee.

It was here where Watson was to turn to Nicklaus and utter the never-to-be forgotten words: "This is what it's all about, isn't it?" Nicklaus responded with the equally memorable, "You bet it is". That exchange beautifully set up 40 minutes of unparalleled golfing tension. Pros who would normally jump in their sports cars and make off as soon as their own scorecards had signed, milled around in front of the hotel waiting to glimpse the denouement. "Nobody was going anywhere," said Tommy Horton, who had by now already been heralded as leading Briton in the tournament.

Except Nicklaus was going somewhere; into a personal hell of a missed three-footer for birdie on the 17th which for the first time in the round handed the lead to Watson. When the new pacesetter found the middle of the 18th fairway and when Nicklaus drove to the edge of a gorse bush the drama was surely over. Not with Jack around it wasn't.

First he had to watch Watson strike a seven-iron 178 yards to within two feet of the hole. Then he had to peer down and try to negotiate a path not only for his ball to avoid that damned gorse but also for his eight-iron through the branches. Thrash! Nicklaus took one almighty swing and the ball broke free. And so too did the crowd. Again.

Nicklaus did not see it miraculously come to rest some 35 feet from the pin. (Neither did Watson's English caddie, Alfie Fyles, who sprained his wrist so badly when pushed to the floor in the stampede he never played golf again). But there it was and Watson knew his afternoon's work was not yet done. "Alfie said to me, 'Well, sir, you got him now'," said Watson. "But I told him. 'Alf, no I don't. We have to expect him to make this putt'."

Nicklaus expected to, crouching down in his inimitable style for what seemed like minutes as he zoned in on the tricky right-to- lefter. Eventually he swung the putter and soon enough the arm was raised to acknowledge what just may be the most obdurate putt in Open history. "Sure enough Jack sinks it and the crowd goes ape," said Watson. "The roar was deafening. As I re-marked my ball the crowd was still going wild and as I lined up my putt they were still going wild. Then Jack puts his hands up to quiet the crowd."

This was not to be Nicklaus's only act of outrageous sportsmanship. When Watson holed for a 65 to Nicklaus's 66, the vanquished walked straight over to the winner, shook his hand, threw his arm around his shoulder and kept it there as the pair walked off the green, talking and laughing as they did so. In those wondrous moments golf had its iconic picture, the very image which was always meant to sum up the gentleman's game. Yet however the historians were to judge this gracious gesture, Nicklaus was just doing what came naturally.

"I never had a problem with somebody beating me as long as I think I've given it my best shot and that's basically what I told Tom," Nicklaus told Corcoran. "I can't remember exactly what I said, but it was along the lines of , 'Well done, you little S.O.B' – or something affectionate like that. Tom smiled back and said, 'I got you this time.' That's what is great about the game of golf. Guys beat on each other's heads all day. And then they walk off the 18th green arm in arm."

In the case of Watson and Nicklaus they walked all the way into an immortal club which, regardless of events at Turnberry next week, they alone will continue to inhabit. Just the two of them. Duelling in that sun.

Memories of '77: How rival players remember the Duel in the Sun

In compiling his vivid account Duel In The Sun the author, Michael Corcoran, asked many of the other professionals who "competed" in that Open Championship just how it was that Watson and Nicklaus were to distance themselves by so far on the leader board. (While Watson finished at 12 under and Nicklaus one behind, only one other player managed to break par.) Each of them came back with a similar answer.

Explained Corcoran: "Watson and Nicklaus fed off each other's emotions and level of play in a self-perpetuating manner that excluded the rest of the field simply because the two were playing together over the last two days."

While that reason makes some sense, it cannot have been much consolation to the rivals left trailing. They were all described as "also-rans" although, in truth, when compared to the startling pace set by the two leaders they barely mustered more than a crawl between them...

Hubert Green

(one under, 11 shots behind)

Green was no mug and neither was he susceptible to pressure. He had proved as much at the US Open a month prior to Turnberry. Not only did he fend off the world's finest to prevail in Tulsa but also did so with a death threat hanging over him. A woman had phoned the FBI to say that three male friends were on their way to Southern Hills to shoot Green on the 15th hole. Somehow he parred the hole. Fast forward to the next month and Green was the only other player able to break par, finishing with a impressive 67. However, the damage was done by a third-round 74. The anonymity of playing in the final group (the supposed "marquee pairing") had clearly got to him in a way that the hoax caller never could. "By the time Roger [Maltbie] and me got to the fifth hole there was no gallery following us at all," said Green. "I mean nobody. I think even our wives went off and watched Jack and Tom play."

Roger Maltbie

(nine-over, 21 shots behind)

At halfway Maltbie, an up-and-coming 26-year-old, was one shot ahead of Watson and Nicklaus. Two rounds later he was so far off the pace he was in danger of being lapped. What had happened? The most unique atmosphere ever to hit golf had happened, that is what. "It was wild on that final day," said Maltbie, who shot an 80. "There was all kinds of noise and it was so dry this cloud of dust was above the people. They were so excited it was almost a stampede. It was certainly not the genteel, well-behaved galleries you always heard about at the Open. I had never heard a noise like that on a golf course. I understood why the people were acting that way, but boy it was a scary situation. I just couldn't deal with what was going on."

Tommy Horton

(four-over, 15 shots behind)

Born in St Helens but raised in Jersey, the 36-year-old was actually chuffed to finish as leading Briton for the second year running. When he holed a 20-footer on the last, he raised his putter to the sky. "It was the biggest thrill of my career," said Horton, who closed out with a 75 to be tied for ninth. He remained behind that final green to watch the drama unfold. Recalled Horton: "When Jack found the green from that gorse I looked around at the other players around me and said 'How does he do it?' But they couldn't hear me. I could barely hear the words coming out of my own mouth." James Corrigan

Missing link: Turnberry's other Open champions

Greg Norman, 1986

If anything, the Australian's 63 in the second round was just as good as anything Nicklaus and Watson had done on the Ailsa Course nine years before. Norman had held the third-round lead in the year's previous two majors and was to do so again at the USPGA. This was to be the one advantage he did convert. Norman cruised away in horrible weekend conditions to win by five. Never has a first major been so deserved.

Nick Price, 1994

Jesper Parnevik seemed to have his first major wrapped up when he was two ahead with one to play. Yet the extrovert Swede believed he was a shot or two behind and went all out for the birdie, bogeying the hole in his desperation. In the meantime, Price had holed a 50-footer for eagle on the 17th green and then duly parred the last to win. Price was due an Open, having lost leads in '82 and '88. Turnberry proved again it believed in payback.

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