July 10, 2009

"This is what it's all about, isn't it?" - Turnberry, Revisited

"This is what it's all about, isn't it?" said Tom Watson, speaking to Jack Nicklaus.

Nicklaus, surveying the scene before him, smiled and replied "you bet it is."

The two men were on the 16th tee at Turnberry in 1977, locked in a duel that was already legend -- though it was far from completed. There were three holes left, the two were tied, with the competition left in the dust that the stampeding spectators were lifting into the sky as the followed the pair.

Often in the excitement of the moment, golf fans, writers and commentators will label a given tournament "the best that's ever been played." They'll often proclaim a player the "best that the game has ever seen." It's understandable, golf's dramas can be that exciting. All too often, when they are caught up in the moment, fans and observers are ignoring the rich history of the game. This time, however, they were spot on.

Jack Nicklaus is the best player the game has ever seen, his record proves it. The "Duel In The Sun" -- as it came to be known later -- was one of the best contests in major tournament history. Given that television and global satellite coverage was becoming de rigeur, it was also one of the more widely seen great battles ever witnessed as well. The 1913 US Open battle between Harry Vardon, Ted Ray and Francis Ouimet was seen and heard only by those in attendance. Bobby Jones completing the game's only recorded Grand Slam was heard only on radio -- as was Ben Hogan's incredible finish on the same Merion course twenty years later. The Duel in the Sun was different in that it was available for the watching for most golf fans the world over. And it was indeed one of the best battles the game has ever seen.

"The display that Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus put on at Turnberry over those last excruciating, compelling, agonizing and interminable 36 holes can only be summed up by quoting from that old RAF monument sitting out there on Turnberry's back nine.

Somewhere on the granite it says THEIR NAME LIVETH FOREVER MORE. Well, if theirs doesn't, there's not a kidney left in a pie in Ayrshire." - Dan Jenkins.

Herbert Warren Wind said later that "all that will probably be remember is the fantastic duel between Nicklaus and Watson, who were paired on both the third and the fourth day and threw some altogether stupendous golf at each other — neither of them ever taking a backward step — right down to the seventy-second green." Wind, for his part, had seen quite a number of tournaments in his day. So had Dan Jenkins, and he described the event in Sports Illustrated as "better than any golf — ever."

After some preliminary sparring on the first hole, Nicklaus landed the first punch on Turnberry's #2 hole, where he made birdie to Watson's bogey. Advantage, Jack. He padded his lead on the 4th with another birdie, and at the time, some thought the rout might be on. Good as Watson was, Nicklaus was the world's #1 player, and when he sunk his teeth into a tournament, he rarely let it go.

Watson was undeterred. He birdied the fifth hole to trim the Golden Bear's lead to two strokes, and on the 8th, he pulled even with a putt that he'd later describe as "lucky" adding that he'd struck the ball so hard that had it not smacked directly into the center of the cup that "it would have gone six or seven feet by the hole."

Golf is like that.

Life is like that.

Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

It is even luckier to be both, which Watson was on the 8th green. The ball may have scooted by had he not struck it into the heart of the hole, he may have missed the putt coming back and history may be different. It isn't, because Watson was a great putter and he put the ball in exactly the right place, no matter hard he hit it. Lucky and good. The stuff that wins major tournaments.

The two would continue their back and forth across the seaside Turnberry course, with each hole ratcheting up the tension and excitement in the throng of thousands that were following the two men. On the ninth hole, Nicklaus and Watson were forced to stop playing and stand back as the Open gallery -- typically one of the most knowledgeable, civil and well-mannered in golf -- burst through the ropes and onto the fairway where the players stood. Nicklaus sat on his bag, with Watson standing nearby, with both being protected by officials and their caddies. The interruption did not serve Watson any favors -- he bogied the hole to Nicklaus's par and made the turn towards the clubhouse one stroke behind once again.

(pictured: Turnberry's 10th green.)

Nicklaus again seized the moment and the momentum and sunk a lengthy birdie putt on the 12th hole, and with a two-stroke lead with but six left to play, many thought that the Champ had finally knocked out the Contender. It was not to be. Watson was not going to go away quietly, nor was he planning to leave at all. On the 13th hole, he sank his own birdie, and put himself right back in the match.

Great golfers do great things at the greatest of times in order to scribe their names indelibly into the history books. Their deeds are such that the never can be forgotten, and Tom Watson, native of Wichita, Kansas, seized the game's pen and did exactly that. On the fifteen hole, Watson delivered a sixty-foot bomb that was pure British golf: from ten feet off of the green and on hard pan, he rolled his ball straight into the flagstick and into the cup.

This could not be done on a typical American course set up for Sunday amateurs, much less one geared for a major championship. The grass would have been too thick for a putt, and Watson would have needed to chip his ball. But this wasn't America, it was Turnberry, and the Scottish seaside course was set up like the courses of old, allowing Watson to wield a flat stick. Such is the nature of an Open Championship, and Watson, from the American heartland, had just played a shot that was as good as any that Old Tom Morris or Harry Vardon or any of the old greats could have every hoped to. That he did it the way the wizards or yore would have was magic to the fans attendance there and their wild cheering was their testament to the moment. They do know their golf in the country where the game was invented, and they knew they were seeing greatness that day -- and that they had just witnessed yet another miracle from a master.

The best, however, was yet to come. Speaking to one another on the 16th tee, the two foes and friends appreciated the moment. And they were enjoying it. The sun was sinking over the rugged coast of Ayrshire, soaking the Alisa course in a golden glow. The crowd surrounding them was numbering in the tens of thousands, with millions more glued to the television sets the world over. It was a moment to treasure, and both were clearly doing just that.

The winning margin came on 17, when Tom Watson snared a two-putt birdie and fourteen-time major championship winner Jack Nicklaus inexplicably missed an equaling short three-footer and was forced to tap in for par. Nicklaus, it is said, was as good a clutch putter as any who has played the game -- Hagen, Woods, any of them. Somehow, though, on that 17th hole, he missed. Given one hundred balls on a normal day, he would make one hundred and one. He was shocked, as was the gasping crowd. Watson had a one stroke lead with but one left to play.

If someone thought that this match was over, they were running a fool's errand. With the honor, Watson split the fairway with a one-iron. Trailing, this forced Nicklaus to take an aggressive line with his driver, which he shoved far into the waving rough and up against a gorse bush.

Watson was first to play, and he dropped his seven iron two feet from the hole and to a deafening roar from the crowd surrounding the green.

Game over? Not hardly. Nicklaus had an impossible lie, but in his time at Ohio State University, Jack never learned the word impossible. Taking a mighty swing with an eight iron, he sent a soaring ball out of the wilderness and onto the green - a shot for the ages. Unfortunately, it was 35 feet from the hole, but this was no mere mortal man holding the putter. It was Jack Nicklaus.

With the crowd again hushed, Nicklaus surveyed the putt and stood over it. Slowly he drew back his putter, then gracefully accelerated into the ball. Murmurs from within the gallery were heard, louder and louder as the ball drew towards the cup. Maybe turned to might, might to probably and probably turned into an explosion of cheers when Nicklaus's ball fell into the cup. The Golden Bear might still be trailing, but he was not going to go quietly and he was not ever going to quit, not even at the last with his opponent stone dead aside the pin.

Now it was Watson's turn. Many champions will tell you that when victory is in their grasp that their eyes blur, their hands shake, and that it feels impossible to make the final stroke. Watson hesitated over his ball, not for those reasons, but instead because the crowd was still roaring and unsettled from Nicklaus's final roundhouse blow that he'd landed only moments before. Jack, ever vigilant of the spirit of fair play, raised his hands to quiet the crowd. Obediently, the fans hushed while Watson brushed a couple of practice strokes and then dropped his ball into the heart of the Claret Jug and into history. The crowd roared once final time, for Watson, for Nicklaus, and for what they had just witnessed, one of the finest Open Championships ever, and two of the finest exhibitions of tournament golf to ever rub the green.

"When I won at Turnberry I really felt as if I belonged and could play with the big boys. Winning the majors was my dream - that's why I practised harder than anyone and tried to develop a game that would work under pressure. And it finally started to work.

"I played some of my best golf ever at Turnberry. I was playing at my peak and it was really a springboard to the rest of my career." - Tom Watson

As they walked off the Alisa course at Turnberry, two battle worn warriors, Jack Nicklaus, as ever the great sportsman that he is, threw his arm around Watson's shoulder and the pair left as one, forever linked in golfing history, legend...and myth.

SPECIAL NOTE: Golf Channel will chronicle the story of the duo's epic battle in a special presentation, Duel in the Sun, airing Monday, July 13 at 9 p.m. ET.

1 comment:

  1. Damn, Charles. You make me feel like I was there with Jack, Tom and two caddies - just the five of us. Great post. Thanks.


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