Go ahead and mark it as the end of an era in professional golf if you're absolutely sure that Jack Nicklaus has been yipped into the sunset years of his career by the steel and nerve and immense talent of Tom Watson.
You could argue that way now, in these hours after Tom Watson has become the new king of the sport in a kingly land; when Watson has already become the Player of the Year, not to mention the future; when he has done it in the most memorable way in the annals of golf; and when he has done it for the second time in this season to the greatest player who ever wore a slipover shirt—Jack Nicklaus.
You could also say it very simply with numbers. In the last two rounds of last week's British Open, Tom Watson shot 65 and 65 to beat Nicklaus by one stroke. Oh, by the way, they were playing together. Oh, yes, and another thing: Watson's 72-hole total was 268, which was a new record by only eight shots. And, incidentally, the victory gave Watson his second major title of the year (and the third of his fresh and exciting career); he had taken the Masters, of course, standing up to Nicklaus in a slightly different type of pressurized situation. And, let's see, the British Open gave the handsome young Watson his sixth win of the year and some $300,000 in tour earnings.
But all of that doesn't even begin to examine what the stakes were on the gorgeous links of Turnberry on Scotland's west coast in the most atmospheric, ancient and, some would argue, most treasured of golf's four major tournaments. Actually, what took place was the most colossal head-to-head shotmaking and low scoring in the history of golf.
July 17, 1977
Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus started to lap the field on Friday, when their identical rounds of 68-70-65 had given them a three-stroke bulge on the nearest pursuers. But just when everyone was ready to concede that Friday's duel had outspectaculared anything ever witnessed from the days of the gutta-percha ball to those of the Apex shaft, Tom and Jack went out and did it all over again in Saturday's final round, spinning out the overwhelming and unbelievable drama and suspense to the very last delicate rap of Watson's putter on a two-foot birdie putt, which gave him a second consecutive 65 to Nicklaus' shabby, horrid and humiliating 66.
On each of the last two days, Watson came back from what looked to be certain doom to catch Nicklaus and finally do him in. Watson just would not go away, not in the face of Nicklaus' birdies, or his icy stare or his mighty reputation. When Watson was two strokes behind in the third round, he fought back to tie Jack, and in so doing broke the Nicklaus rhythm and the tempo of his short putts. Then on Saturday Watson came back again twice, once from three strokes down to tie, and again from two back, finishing the round with four blazing birdies over the last six holes.
Watson was in fact two shots behind the premier player of the game with those six holes left. Who can give Nicklaus two shots over six holes and beat him by one? Who could even contemplate it? Only Tom Watson in this day and time, a Tom Watson who has the best complete game in golf and has been showing that he has it all year. A Tom Watson who has the most reliable, solid swing around, who has the well-educated patience to hold himself in control, the strength and vigor of youth, and now the confidence and determination to make himself worthy of the No. 1 role he has seized.
Here's how it was at the most torturous time of all, out there at the par-3 15th hole in the last round after Watson had just stabbed Nicklaus through the front of his yellow sweater with a 60-foot birdie putt from the hardpan 10 feet off the green. That astonishing shot hit the flagstick and dived into the cup and brought Watson into a tie once more.
They went to the 16th tee and Jack and Tom looked at each other. The blond and the redhead. Yesterday and today. Then and now. Dominguín and Ordó√±ez.
And Tom smiled at Jack. "This is what it's all about, isn't it?"
And Jack smiled back and said, "You bet it is."
They parred the 16th, and so it came down to the last two holes, as most knowledgeable people had been thinking it would. The 500-yard 17th was a pushover par-5, an "eagle hole," surely a birdie hole. The 18th was a bothersome par-4. Anything could happen.
But now it was time for the grand final shot out of Watson's bag that would unglue Jack and make him commit the tiny but killing error that would be the difference. Tom absolutely stung a perfect three-iron right over the flag and onto the green at the 17th, where he would be putting for an eagle from only 20 feet—a sure birdie, in other words.
This had long since been match play, and the pressure was now on Nicklaus. What Watson's shot did, coming in the wake of so many others that had been hounding Jack, was bother Nicklaus just enough to make him press a sloppy four-iron that not only missed the green but also left him with an evil chip shot. Maybe only a fighter like Jack could have got that chip as close as he did, within four feet of the hole. But the mortal damage had been done.
Watson had a cinch birdie and Nicklaus had just a working chance at one. Only the day before, shots by Watson had forced Jack to miss a couple of short putts of the kind that he has never blown before but will now find himself fearing more frequently. Nicklaus missed that four-foot putt and for the first time all week Watson was alone in the lead.
When they went to the 18th, Watson struck a crisp one-iron off the tee into perfect position and then nailed a seven-iron that stuck into the flag like an arrow in the ribs of the bear. A sure birdie.
It was marvelous show biz that Nicklaus recovered from a desperate and awkward drive to reach the green in two and then sink a 40-foot birdie of his own. Fine curtain call and all that, but the putt was pure luck, the kind that only drops when you need it the least on the final hole of a major championship. Jack knew Tom had already won it, just as he probably had a deeper feeling of impending tragedy on all those earlier holes when he was unable to lose Tom. And Watson ended the drama by tapping in from two feet out.
After Watson said all of the nice things about how hard it is to keep concentrating and trying not to make any mistakes against a Jack Nicklaus, it was time for a more telling reaction. In a certain amount of privacy, Jack shook his head and said, "I just couldn't shake him."
With that, Nicklaus looked off in thought with something of the expression of an aging gunfighter. He did not say he had been expecting someone to come along one of these years. But the look seemed to indicate that he had finally met him.
It might be well to speak of where this all took place. For years, golfing enthusiasts from various continents had wondered if the British Open could be played at Turnberry, certainly the most scenic of Britain's links courses, and they had wished the Royal and Ancient would attempt it. Many an official within the R and A itself had wished it. But Turnberry presented serious problems as a championship site. No town, no roads, no hotels, among other things.
Turnberry, when it was not functioning as an air base during world wars, consisted of one massive hotel up on the hill overlooking the RAF runways, the Firth of Clyde, in which fishermen still hook onto crashed Hudson bombers, the island bird sanctuary known as Ailsa Craig, and the gleaming lighthouse out on the point, which had long since become the Turnberry golf club's logo.
All the objections to Turnberry as a site might have been valid before the British Open had regained its reputation as one of the Big Four in golf, before the Arnold Palmers and Jack Nicklauses had turned it into something other than a rickety event in which Peter Thomson beat half a dozen guys from Stoke Poges. The people would come streaming in to see it nowadays, no matter what, the R and A figured. And how right it was.
Each day the great grandstands scattered over the dunes were filled by 10 a.m. and thousands more were tromping through the whin and heather as if a Mark Hayes wearing his Amana hat or a John Schroeder were real people. They stormed the tented village, as it is called, that hodgepodge of commercial exhibitions featuring everything from shooting sticks to pork pies to cashmeres at discount. Only in this championship among the Grand Slam tournaments can the spectator see players from as many as 27 different countries. Leap over a burn in the British Open and you can go from a Severiano Ballesteros waist-deep in non-Spanish flora to a Baldovino Dassu neckdeep in non-Italian fauna.
To the British, the charm of Turnberry's links lay in the fact that its holes are closer to the sea than those of any other of their Open courses. At a Carnoustie, Muirfield, Birkdale or Lytham, for example, you can't even catch a glimpse of the water from a tee or green. You can see it at St. Andrews, but there is no way to strike a ball into watery oblivion without a hydroplane. Ah, but Turnberry! The water is always there, furnishing a series of backdrops, washing up against a competitor's concentration.
The best of Turnberry is bound up in its golf, and, delightedly, the rest of the world learned about that last week. Although it got caught in a warm calm that produced the lowest scoring in the 106-year-old championship's elegant history, Turnberry earned its way onto the R and A's Open rota both with the record crowds it drew and the breathtaking action it provided, and not just from Tom and Jack.
It has never been any secret that if you could catch one of the famous old courses in England or Scotland in a dead calm, you could scorch it. Unlike American layouts, wind is 50% of the danger, as much a part of linksland golf as a pot bunker or gnarled heather. The necessity of wind to British golf is why the Open has always been staged on courses by the sea—to ensure the sternest test. But throughout the four rounds there was no wind at Turnberry.
And so with hundreds of spectators wearing no shirts at all instead of the customary Open garb of topcoats and rain gear, and with the course looking more like a Farrah Fawcett-Majors than a Lotte Lenya, the players leaped at it with glee and daring. The result was a raft of scores that would have sent old Tom Morris staggering dizzily toward a barrel of ale. It was so easy that a couple of American tour regulars, John Schroeder and then Roger Maltbie, led the first and second rounds, Schroeder with a 66 on Wednesday and then Maltbie with 71-66—137. These were Americans who would have looked more at home at the Quad Cities tournament. It was their first time over, even though Maltbie's mother is Scottish and his dad had been a flyer stationed in Scotland during the big one. The British considered them unknowns, unaware of Maltbie's three victories on the U.S. tour.
It was in Thursday's second round that Turnberry began to take some real lumps. Hubert Green came very close to going around in a figure as weird as a California license plate. He went seven under par through the first 13 holes. Then mistakes got him when, as he later admitted, "a 59 crossed my mind." He settled for 66. At more or less the same time, however, Mark Hayes was out there shoving Turnberry inside an Amana refrigerator. Hayes plays golf in hiding, pulling a brimmed hat down over his shy, almost terrifyingly modest, expressions, and although he is a superb golfer who makes his own clubs in Edmond, Okla., and is one of the new wave of young stars, words flow from his lips every other eon. With a cross-handed putting style he was trying out for only the second time in competition, he flattened Turnberry with a 63.
It was the lowest single round—by two strokes—ever shot in the world's oldest major championship. Back in 1934 a golf ball had been hurried into production after Henry Cotton's 65 at Sandwich—the Dunlop 65, of course. And now Hayes had shot 63 and everyone was goofy over it. Except Mark Hayes. He was another American in the British Open for the first time and he didn't know about the record, which would have been even lower if he hadn't started thinking cross-handed and chosen the wrong clubs on the 18th hole and finished with a bogey. Surrounded by a mere 900 million members of the press, then, Mark Hayes was asked what his reaction was to his monumental feat. He sat there. He looked down. He thought. Finally, he said. "I have a lot of trouble figuring out the distances over here."
That was it. The Eagle has landed. If I have but one life to give. Give me liberty or give me. Lafayette, we are somewhere. And so forth. Mark Hayes had shattered Britain with a 63 and Amana had not sent a poet with him to Turnberry.
All of this ushered the Open into Friday and Saturday and what were to become two of the grandest, most thrilling and astonishing days that the sport has ever known. As single days in competitive golf went, Friday, July 8 and Saturday, July 9, 1977 had to rate right up there with such other landmarks as the last round of the 1975 Masters, when Nicklaus outlasted Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller; with the final day of the British Open in 1972, when Lee Trevino cut the heart out of Nicklaus, Nicklaus' shot at the Slam, and Tony Jacklin; and certainly with the last 18 holes of the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills when Arnold Palmer left wounded soldiers all around Denver.
History will most likely see it as better than any of those. Better than any golf—ever. 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.