He stood against one of those sand hills, one foot halfway up the rise, a gloved hand braced on his knee and his head hung downward in monumental despair. He lingered in this pose, with what seemed like all of Scotland surrounding him, with the North Sea gleaming in the background and with the quiet broken only by the awkward, silly, faraway sound of bagpipes rehearsing for the victory ceremony. This was Jack Nicklaus on the next to last hole of the British Open after another putt had refused to fall. It was Nicklaus in the moment he knew, after a furious comeback, that he had finally lost the championship and what might have been the grandest slam in golf. One more putt of any size on any of these last seven holes and Nicklaus would have completed what could seriously have been termed the most brilliant rally the game had ever known.
But one more putt did not drop for Nicklaus, and on the same hole minutes later one more chip shot did curl implausibly into the cup for implausible Lee Trevino. Finally, after all the shattering heroics last week at Muirfield, the whole world had a right to feel over-golfed and oversuspensed.
The honest fact is, there are two fairly incredible golfers today, Nicklaus and Trevino, and the two of them have been producing so many memorable major championships lately that it is getting hard to keep them straight. The last two U.S. Opens pretty much have been a Nicklaus-Trevino saga, and so have the last three British Opens. It may be well and good to keep talking about Nicklaus' 13 major titles, but think about this: since the 1968 U.S. Open, when he first became a winner, Super Mex has won as many big ones (four) as Nicklaus has over the same period. And, for all of that drama and suspense last week, it was still the happy Mexican who never stopped providing the comedy that the stifling pressure at Muirfield needed.
Trevino tossed out all the usual lines about God being Mexican or else Nicklaus would still be alive for the Grand Slam; about switching back and forth from the small British ball to the larger American ball and how the American ball always looked like a melon; about the castle he had rented for the week ("They got to have some kind of princess locked up in there someplace"); and about the lukewarm drinks the Scots are accustomed to ("No wonder everybody over here's so wrinkled up"). That was Trevino all week.
July 23, 1972
It probably can be said that Nicklaus waited too long to attack Muirfield, that he perished with his own conservative game plan on a course that played easier than he expected because of some unanticipated glory-be weather. When Jack finally turned aggressive for Saturday's closing 18, when he was six shots down and the lids came off his driver and three wood, he shot a 66 to tie the course record and, at one point, miraculously lead the tournament by one stroke. Jack will think long about the holes he let get away during the earlier rounds and he will dwell, too, on the six late putts that refused to disappear into the cups—a 12-footer for a birdie at the 12th, a 15-footer for a birdie at the 13th, an 18-footer for another birdie at the 14th, a four-footer for yet another birdie at the 15th, a three-footer for a saving par at the 16th and, the last gasp, the 20-foot birdie putt at the 17th.
Saturday, the oh-so-memorable Saturday, began with only four potential winners of this Open. Trevino held a one-stroke lead by virtue of a flood of Friday birdies. They came five in a row from the 14th through the 18th, including an astonishing hole-out of a sand shot at 16—which even Lee admitted should have been a double bogey—and the sinking of a 30-foot chip on the last green. Next was Tony Jacklin, who was up there despite a triple bogey during the second round; and then Doug Sanders, who was only four back despite a triple bogey of his own along the way. And finally Jack Nicklaus—if he could muster an Arnold Palmer type of thing.
Jack did exactly that. Through 11 holes, as he was being cheered madly by a rousing British crowd of 20,000, he seemed to be playing, at last, the definitive round of golf. He was perfect with every club, and he had pushed to six under par. "Look at this," Trevino said to Jacklin as they went to the 9th tee. "Nicklaus has gone crazy. We're out here beating each other to death, and that son of a gun's done caught us and passed us."
Two little dramas of high order were going on at this point. Up ahead, the crowds were yelling for the Nicklaus Slam as he strode the length of the 11th fairway toward another short birdie putt. Back at the 9th, Trevino had told his caddie, "We're behind, son. Gimme that driver, we got to make something happen." Trevino absolutely killed his drive at the skinny 9th fairway. He then put a five-iron within 18 feet of the hole and made the putt for an eagle. Suddenly he was back to even par for the day, and back to six under for the tournament. And Jacklin, too, eagled the 9th, to stay within one shot of Trevino.
Nicklaus, meanwhile, tried to address the birdie putt on the 11th green that would put him in a tie with Trevino at six under. He heard the two roars for the eagles, backed away from his putt and smiled. Then he coldly made the birdie, and once more came an explosion of sound, this time from his own gallery. It was an eerie moment hearing those roars back to back to back. Trevino remembered later, "After our eagles at 9, I told Tony, 'That'll give Jack something to think about.' Then we heard his birdie roar and I said, 'I think the man just gave us something else to think about.' "
What can be said of Trevino and how he actually won? How can it be accounted for? Nicklaus worked for more than a week at Muirfield, while Trevino arrived late. Wearing a planter's hat and cracking jokes, he practiced only two days. "I brought this trophy back," he said upon arrival, "but I shouldn't have. It's just going back to El Paso."
The case certainly can be made that this was a lucky win for Trevino, unlike last year at Royal Birkdale when he destroyed the course with brilliant shot-making. After all, he holed out four times—four—from off the greens during the course of 72 holes for his 278. And that is simply indecent.
On the second day he chipped in for a birdie 3 at the 2nd hole from 40 feet with an eight-iron. Then he holed his two ridiculous shots in the third round when he ran off from everyone but Jacklin. The first was from a terrible lie up against a bank in a bunker at the 16th. He had just dropped consecutive birdie putts of more than 20 feet at the 14th and 15th. Now he slammed his wedge into the sand. Out spurted the ball in a semi-line drive to take one harsh bounce and dive into the cup for a birdie 2. At the 18th, after two-putting for a normal birdie on the 17th, he chipped out of the weeds for a fifth straight birdie and a 66. "I think things like that happen to a man sometimes when he's trying," Lee said. "I was trying. I was aiming at the cup. I didn't come to Scotland to help Nicklaus win any Grand Slam. If I played golf with my wife, I'd try to beat the daylights out of her."
For all of this, it was one last chip shot that found its way into the hole that rescued Trevino from what looked, at the very end, like a certain victory for Tony Jacklin. Tony had won in 1969, and Tony could win again. Princess Margaret was there; wasn't this an omen?
Trevino had played the par-5 17th like a man choking on the trophy or a sausage roll or perhaps royalty. He drove into a bunker, poked it out, poked it again and then ran a short pitch over the green. Jacklin, meanwhile, was just off the green in two. He chipped on, leaving himself a good birdie chance. He was about to go to 18 with a certain one-stroke lead. Perhaps two. Possibly three.
"I think I might have given up. I felt like I had," Trevino said. "My heart wasn't really in my chip shot." Something was. It went in for a saving five. Jacklin, having watched all these crazy shots of Lee's go in for two rounds, now did what was human. He three-putted from 15 feet. And that was that. Trevino got a routine par on 18 for his second British Open to go along with the two U.S. Opens he has won in his five years as a touring pro.
"I feel sorry for Tony, who played really well. And I feel sorry for Jack. But Jack shouldn't have treated me like a butler when I had dinner with him the other night," said Trevino, still joking, still refreshingly Trevino.
In retrospect, one really has to wonder about Nicklaus' strategy, and Jack himself might well look back and question it. Maybe not, however. He is pretty stubborn about such things. He had a game plan for Muirfield and he stuck to it—at least until Saturday.
He arrived early to begin preparations for both the course and the smaller ball. There was nothing wrong with this—or else it could be said that he should not have arrived a week early at Pebble Beach for the U.S. Open. The argument that Jack was overprepared can be discarded. The final round proved as much.
There was tremendous pressure on him. The betting odds were an outlandish 2 to 1 before the championship even got under way and all of the Scottish newspapers were advertising the event as some sort of Nicklaus Extravaganza. The Scotsman (Edinburgh), for example, labeled its daily coverage, "The Grand Slam Open," with a portrait of Jack.
Muirfield has been called Scotland's best golf course by many authorities. This does not mean it is the toughest; that is probably Carnoustie in the wind. It means that Muirfield is the most elegant, the classiest, the most subtle, the best conditioned. It is not a long course; it has often been compared to our own Merion, given the right winds. There were one or two par 4s that Nicklaus could reach with a driver if he chose to try—and if he succeeded in hitting it straight enough. There were several others where he could reduce his second shot to a wedge if he hit with a big club off the tee. And there were par 5s he could surely reach in two blows.
Jack, having won at Muirfield in 1966 and sternly aware of the narrow fairways and numerous well-deep bunkers, had decided the only way to play the course was defensively, with caution and patience. He would one-iron it and three-iron it from the tees. On only five holes, depending on the wind, would his woods come out of the bag. "What happened, basically," he said afterward, "is that I didn't hit the other clubs straight."
It was only during Wednesday's first round that Muirfield played like a British Open course should—long, windy and rainy. Nicklaus' 70 that day was a mad scramble as he missed seven fairways on the only day his game plan made sense. When the unusually glorious weather set in on Thursday, Jack woke up and said, "Ye gods, I'll have to shoot 65 just to stay in it. The course will be a piece of cake." Muirfield was bright with sun, windless—and short. But all Jack did was go on missing fairways. Still, the field did not run away from him. And he was due a good round, wasn't he? "I haven't wasted any of my good golf yet," Nicklaus said Thursday night.
He didn't waste any on Friday either. The weather was even more wonderful, and there really weren't that many contenders for him to worry about. The first-day leader, Peter Tupling—was a Tupling worth more than a shilling?—had slipped back the way Tuplings should. A few other British surprises were still around but they wouldn't last. It was only Nicklaus against Trevino, Jacklin, Sanders and Johnny Miller, who had holed a three-wood for a double eagle, and perhaps astonishing Dave Marr, back from nowhere.
Everyone felt that Friday would be the day Nicklaus would explode. Not so. Jack was still missing fairways and was well out of it, two over par going to the 16th hole at the very time Trevino and Jacklin were at their hottest. It was only through a miracle of his very own, a chip in at the 16th, another birdie at the 17th and a struggling par at the 18th, that Nicklaus got home with a 71 and even par through 54 holes. Granted, in any other British Open that might have been fine. But Super Mex and Super Limey and the weather were seeing to it that this was no ordinary championship.
By attacking Muirfield, Tony Jacklin had met some tragedies, among them his triple bogey on the 13th hole the second day, but he had also stored up some birdies and eagles. Trevino had bounced between birdies and bogeys all along until nothing but birdies turned up late Friday in that mind-bending finish of his. And it seemed clear that Nicklaus had waited too long to change his strategy. But even after he had lost, Jack disagreed, contending, "I'll always believe I played the course the right way and just didn't play well. What can I do about a guy who holes it out of bunkers and across greens?"
He can keep trying for the Grand Slam, which might only exist in a dream, after all. At least as long as Super Mex keeps popping up to interfere with history.