Amid the gloomy and yet intoxicating old ruins of the town called St. Andrews and on the golf course that held the first cleat, history and tradition were caned and flogged all last week in a musty thing called the British Open by a cast of modern hustlers and legends. It was as if the Wimpy and the Whippy had come to the Royal and Ancient, along with black-eyed peas and corn bread: as if, for a while, the oldest course were only a stroll through Carnaby Street. While Tony Jacklin shot the heather off the land, Lee Trevino shot down a prime minister. And then while Jack Nicklaus played himself into the immortality of the record books, the lord of night life, Sir Douglas Sanders, played himself back from nowhere and into the hearts of those who savor the three-piece, phone-booth golf swing.
It was one of the most thrilling major championships that had been staged in years, one that suffocated in all kinds of atmosphere. It had overtones of America against the world, elements of the best and worst of shotmaking, ghastly pressure, enormous crowds, a buffet of seaside weather, the purity of British humor, the suspense of overtime—all of these things—until it was mercifully concluded by Jack Nicklaus' rendezvous with history.
There are three kinds of British Opens, all of them delightful and all of them distinctive. There is the one that is played in England at Lytham, where Jacklin won last year, or Hoylake or Birkdale, where it returns in 1971. Then there is the one that is played in Scotland, which is a little better, at Muirfield, Carnoustie or Troon. And finally there is the British Open that is played at St. Andrews every so often, like last week's. This, indeed, is the British Open.
The fact that the 99th British Open was being held at St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf, had been largely responsible for luring the strongest field of Americans in the history of the event. Aside from the three who finally settled it—Nicklaus, Sanders and Trevino—there were Arnold Palmer, of course, and Bert Yancey, Dave Marr, Miller Barber, Raymond Floyd, Dale Douglass, Orville Moody, Billy Casper, Tommy Aaron, Gay Brewer, Tommy Shaw, Tom Weiskopf and Steve Melynk, the amateur champion. Why even more Americans didn't make it was a bit mystifying. It would seem to be part of a professional's education—to see the Old Course once, at least, to investigate the wind and whins and heather, to drive over the Beardies, to relish all of this history.
July 19, 1970
All week long the Americans who did come were enthralled by the Scots' sophistication in golf. When they weren't glancing around pointing out famous hazards to each other, they were listening for marvelous lines. Dave Marr, plunging into the lore of the place, waggled an eight-iron and asked his caddie one day if the shot was a hard eight or a soft eight to the green.
"Just the true value of the club, sir," the caddie said.
When Tony Jacklin had completed the grandest 10 holes in the history of major championships—in other words, when he was eight under par through 10 holes on Wednesday—a couple of weathery old Scots, a man and woman sitting in the stands behind the 11th green, were not so dazzled. Jacklin's tee shot there ate up the flag, but it soared 30 feet beyond the cup.
"A bit long," said the lady.
"Right on the stick, though," the man said.
"Well," the lady said, "that's half the game, isn't it?"
In terms of crusty sophistication, it was almost unbelievable the way the British Open began at St. Andrews. In contrast to the U.S. Open, which has at least a touch of ceremony to it, the British Open begins more like a starter sending off the first twosome of any weekday. Everybody stands around quietly, an old gentleman moves the tee markers back about three feet, an aging steward empties out the trash in the tee box, somebody coughs. Finally, the starter looks at one of the two unknowns and says, "Your honor, I believe." And the game is on.
The first day the field caught the Old Course in a calm, with the greens slowed down by constant watering, and turned it into a shambles. It was a giddy day for Great Britain as all sorts of British subjects wrecked par. Neil Coles, for example, shot a record seven-under 65, largely due to the holing out of some enormous putts, plus a nine-iron for an eagle. But all day the big throngs had been waiting for their hero, Tony Jacklin, the handsome, friendly little man who had won the U.S. Open and who had been made a bookmaking favorite at St. Andrews. The wait was well worth it, for Tony promptly launched into a memorable afternoon of golf, birdieing the first three holes with wedge shots, two-putting for a birdie at the 5th, running an eight-iron off the lip of a bunker at the 7th up to within six feet of the pin for another birdie and then holing out a wedge from 100 yards for an eagle at the 9th. On the 10th he wedged up again to within six feet and dropped this putt. The total at that point showed 29 on the front side, eight under par, with only 13 putts in 10 holes.
But then, after Jacklin had sliced a four-wood into the bushes on the par-5 14th, a sudden rainstorm swept over the course. Actual rivers washed across the greens and, after a hurried conference, officials called a halt to play. While some Americans argued rather heatedly that the whole first round should be scrubbed—that the R and A had made up a "Jacklin rule," or a "British rule," so all those low scores would stand—the fact was that more than two-thirds of the field was in and it was clearly written in the R and A rules (also in the USGA rules, by the way) that a round can be abandoned when a course is deemed unplayable and play can be continued at the point of progress on a subsequent day.
As it turned out, Tony would have been better off playing through the lightning and rivers. For one thing, he had to worry for 12 hours over an unplayable lie in the rough on the 14th, those waist-high shrubs to become known ever after as "Tony's Whins." The lie was 40 yards from the green, just down the hill from Hell Bunker.
There was a lot of joking about how on Thursday morning there might not be a bush there, and Tony would have a clear shot. And about how some British writer would surely have a frontpage story headlined: I GUARDED TONY'S DROP AREA THROUGH THE NIGHT. History would note that Jacklin marked the lie with two tees, and put the ball, a Dunlop 1, in his golf bag and went home. The ball slept well, if Jacklin didn't.
He arrived at 7:15 the next morning, promptly announced that he would take a penalty for an unplayable lie, dropped the ball about 25 yards behind the bushes and played a nice shot onto the green some 12 feet from the hole. When that putt failed to drop, his luck was gone, and he wound up losing the title by the three strokes he had slept on.
Then, for a while, the lead had belonged to Lee Trevino. The second day had seen him move ahead with his second 68, a stroke in front of Jacklin and Nicklaus. Trevino was the only player besides Jacklin the crowd seemed to warm to. He loved it and they loved it. His big moment actually came during Friday's third round. On the first tee Lee was introduced to Prime Minister Edward Heath. Trevino grinned and said, "Ever shake hands with a Mexican?" The R and A building, along with the prime minister, gently swayed with laughter.
Lee probably beat himself on Saturday with a colossal boner, or at least he went a long way toward it. At the 5th hole he laced an iron at the wrong flag on the huge double green, leaving himself about 80 feet from the right one, and he three-putted for a bogey at a time when Nicklaus and Sanders were moving away. The moment he hit the approach shot, he slapped himself in the forehead, like one of the Three Stooges, and said, "I done hit to the wrong stick." Then he said, "And I'm just dumb enough to have done it, too."
From then on the championship alternately belonged to Nicklaus or Sanders. Nicklaus played splendidly enough on Saturday to have won two British Opens and a Pensacola thrown in. It was a day when the wind blew up to 50 mph. As somebody said, they must have sent to Carnoustie for the wind machine. In any case, the Old Course was a violent place, and 73 was like four under.
Nicklaus was striking the ball about as well as anyone ever saw him do it, but he left it on the greens with five three-putts, missing several times from inside eight feet. One of these came on the 18th, where he rolled his drive through the Valley of Sin as if he were going for old Tom Morris' grave across town and then missed a putt coming back.
It all came down to Sanders then, and whether he could par the last two holes. With one of the great bunker shots of our time, he survived 17, the Road Hole. But with one of the worst wedges of our time, he got a hitch in the heart at 18 and put himself on the back of the green. Then he jerked up on a 28-inch putt that would have won it.
"Good God," Arnold Palmer said to Doug later. "Pitch and run is your game. What were you doing out there?"
"I just don't know," said Sanders.
It may long be said that Nicklaus made the finest putt of his life Sunday on the final hole of the playoff, where he slammed a howling monster of a shot that carried over Granny Clark's Wynd, the little road that crosses the course, and blazed up to the high grass behind the green, merely 370 yards.
Sanders had crept up from four strokes behind in the last four holes and now was within one sinister stroke. No one could ever know how he had done it. He was just a nervy veteran hanging on with some kind of instinct. Sanders took out a four-iron and hit a run-up shot through the Valley of Sin that he should have hit on Saturday, within four feet of the cup. And so it was up to Jack. He came out of the tough, high grass with about as gutsy a wedge shot as one will ever see and left himself an eight-footer for the whole thing. With the patience only Nicklaus can display, with the confidence of a man who felt the championship truly belonged to him, he jammed it in. Two nights before, Gay Brewer had said, "Jack's in the mood to win. You can tell by the way he swings that he's ready. And when he's ready, it's all over." It was all over now.
For you history fans, it was Jack's 10th major championship in a career that, if it continues, can drown all the records of the Bobby Joneses and Walter Hagens for all time. Let's see: two British Opens to go along with his two U.S. Opens, his two U.S. Amateurs, his PGA and his three Masters titles. Only Jones (12) and Hagen (11) have won more. And Jack doesn't look like he's nearing retirement.
The British were happy in the end, one felt. Considering the exciting prospects of the four big challengers going at it in the fourth round—Nicklaus, Jacklin, Trevino and Sanders—one old Scot had said, "Quite a show coming up, it appears, but whatever happens, we want a proper champion, don't we?"
Would Jack Nicklaus do?