Duel in the Sun - Tom Watson vs Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry 1977
Over the final 36 holes of the 106th Open Championship the two best players of the day reduced the world’s most famous medal competition to a private match, yet one avidly followed by thousands of spectators scurrying over every inch of the parched fairways under the relentless sun – some of the younger men bare-chested, no less – as well as those remotely captivated by television and radio, even for years to come thanks to the never-to-be-tired-of highlights video. The Duel in the Sun, they called it, the newspaper headline becoming the title of Michael Corcoran’s engrossing full-length account over 20 years later.
With rounds of 68, 70, 65 and 65, Tom Watson won with a new record score – eight better than the old best – of 268, 12 under par. Nicklaus had rounds of 68, 70, 65 and 66. The sole difference was the birdie Watson made at the 71st hole. They left the 72nd green arm-in-arm, both with birdie-threes, one achieved in clinical fashion by the masterly champion one was becoming, the other an improbable last act of defiance from the greatest champion the game has known. “Tom Watson gets my prize for the best four consecutive rounds ever with his Open Championship victory at Turnberry in 1977, followed by the closest possible margin by Nicklaus, one stroke adrift in the same championship,” wrote Peter Dobereiner.
Pat Ward-Thomas, in The Guardian, reported: “In all the history of the Open Championship there can never have been a contest to surpass the one at Turnberry in which Tom Watson, for the second time this season, faced and overcame formidable opposition from Jack Nicklaus.”
Watson was 27 when he arrived at Turnberry. He had won his first Open at Carnoustie two years earlier but his reputation had been of a fine, young player who choked on the biggest occasions, at least until he won the Masters that April by holding off a Nicklaus charge in the final round. He won that with a birdie at the 71st hole as well. He then won the Western Open and had stopped in Barcelona on the eve of the Open to win a 36-event by 10 strokes with a 61 on the second day. “I came in really playing well,” Watson recalled. “It was one of the few tournaments where going in I really thought I could win right from the first tee on. That was to come true, but there was one man standing in my way, and a pretty formidable opponent.”
Nicklaus had won 14 major championships by that time (interestingly enough, exactly where Tiger will be when he makes his Turnberry debut). A man used to winning one in every three majors, had not won one in the last six attempts. He had not won the Open since his second title in 1970, since when he had been second twice, third twice, fourth and fifth.
Herb Warren Wind wrote in the New Yorker: “Nicklaus, who is now 37, has been the best golfer in the world for the last 12 years, or possibly even longer, and he sees no reason to cede his throne to any young pup, since he believes that in many ways he is a better golfer today than the has ever been. Watson, who is ten years younger than Nicklaus, is patently an improved player this year. His left side controls his swing just the way it should,
and his footwork is very good – not that these are the things you are most conscious of while watching him. “What impresses you most is the quickness and decisiveness with which he plays his shots, the freedom of his hitting action, and the sharpness with which he strikes the ball. Much as Watson respects Nicklaus, you felt at Turnberry that he relished the challenge of facing him head-to-head. On both days, he played the better golf from tee to green, but Nicklaus came through with so many stunning recoveries and got down so many long and difficult putts in key situations that until the very end he was the man in command and Watson the hard pressed pursuer.”
Wind wrote of the “furious attacks and counterattacks that made this protracted confrontation so memorable”. Ward-Thomas developed a similar theme: “For sustained attack and counter on such a pitch of scoring right down to the wire it was an epic that may not be approached for generations. Let no one think that the course was all that short. For his shots to the greens in the last round Watson twice used wood, twice a long iron and seven times medium irons. Nicklaus’s clubbing was similar. “The capacity of Nicklaus for momentous conquest has long been famous; now Watson has done so twice and proved that he has full measure of the qualities for lasting greatness. His courage, resilience and golfing perception are remarkable. His technique has matured to a very high degree in swing, power without strain, rhythm and shot making.
“And withal Watson is an uncommonly intelligent man. Britain could have no more fitting champion. If the reign of Nicklaus as a winner of great titles is drawing to a close Watson is the perfect successor, but I doubt that Nicklaus will relinquish his kingdom lightly. Even for the most successful golfer of all time defeat was acutely disappointing. This was the sixth time he has been second and a third victory would have rounded off an almost impregnable tally in major championships.”
Nicklaus returned to St Andrews the following year for a third Open win and the year after was a runner-up for the seventh time. But his major success was slowing down but there remained, of course, that remarkable 18th major triumph at the Masters in 1986, a tally that certainly looked impregnable until Tiger Woods came along. But Watson was now the man of the moment. He won three more Opens, another Masters and the US Open at Pebble Beach in 1982 when he again trumped Nicklaus, this time by holing an outrageous chip at the 71st hole.
Watson and Nicklaus were among those sharing second place at the halfway stage at Turnberry and were paired together in the penultimate group. By the end of the day they were still tied but three clear of the field. “The excitement was almost palpable,” Dobereiner wrote of that third round, “crackling like static electricity, as they went at it. There was no question but that they were playing head-to-head. This was no arid exercise of card and pencil but mortal combat to the death.” Nicklaus birdied the first and the pattern was set, he would go one or even two shots ahead but Watson would always catch up. There certainly was electricity in the air and after putting out on the eighth the players and their caddies sought shelter on the beach from a brief thunderstorm.
Nicklaus was out in 31, Watson in 33. They returned with 34 and 32 strokes respectively. Weeks of little rainfall had left the course with hardly any rough and conditions were ideal for scoring. Turnberry was not a true championship test, some thought. Except that from the third round onwards only two players took advantage. Wind wrote: “It is, I admit, something of a mystery how the almost defenceless course yielded so few low scores – other than those by Nicklaus and Watson – on the last two and a half days. Some players I talked with thought the hard-surfaced, rolling greens had effected this, making it difficult to stop one’s approaches close to the pins and also to putt consistently well. This suggests that the two leaders, locked deep in their duel, simply forced each other to rise above the conditions.” Tom Weiskopf, the 1973 Open champion, added: “When you look at the two guys who played so well, you are looking at two enormously patient men. Easily the two most patient players I’ve ever seen.”
On Saturday 9 July 1977, Nicklaus again went ahead, three in front by the fourth with two birdies to a Watson bogey. But Watson birdied the fifth, the seventh and the eighth, his putt there ramming into the hole from 20 feet. But after a delay to control the excited gallery at the next, Watson would bogey while Nicklaus birdied the 12th to go two ahead with six to play. Surely, he could not be beaten from here? Only by a man still to conjure four more birdies. The first came at the 13th and the next at the short 15th, from the unlikely position of the fringe between two bunkers and 60 feet away but so surprising his opponent that Nicklaus missed his birdie chance.
As the masses got into position at the 16th, Watson turned to Nicklaus and said: “This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?” Nicklaus replied: “You bet it is.” They parred the 16th but Watson got home in two at the par-five 17th while Nicklaus failed to get up and down to match the four. For the first time, Watson was ahead. He hit a fine tee shot at the last, while Nicklaus’s drive leaked into the edge of a gorse bush on the right. Playing first, Watson stroked a seven-iron to within a yard of the home hole. The closer the ball got, the louder the roar. “Elementary, my dear Watson,” intoned Peter Alliss on commentary for the BBC.
“The game was surely up for Nicklaus,” wrote Tim Glover in Fairway to Heaven, “but in the next few minutes he was to add to his immense stature in the game. While he has played many great shots to win championships, he has never played two better shots to lose one.” From 160 yards, Nicklaus slashed at the base of the bush with an eight-iron and muscled his ball onto the green. In the massed charge to the 18th green that followed, Watson’s caddie, Alfie Fyles, was knocked over and sprained his wrist so badly that he could never play golf again. Nicklaus was just under 40 feet from the hole.
Many may have thought he would hole the putt, but two people knew he would, Nicklaus and Watson. “It was like matchplay and I had to think I would have to make that three-footer to win,” Watson explained.
“Jack holed his 40-footer and I was still in the frame of mind to make mine. The reason I kept that attitude was that I wanted to have no letdown whatsoever. That’s the way a competitor has to react. Mine was a straight putt. I was nervous over it but I stroked it right into the right centre of the cup.”
To deafening cheers, Nicklaus went over to congratulate Watson and they left the green together. “I’m tired of giving it my best and coming up short,” Nicklaus told his opponent. Later Nicklaus said: “There’s been a lot made over that golf tournament and I think I’m glad to be part of it. I didn’t want to be on the side I was on but that’s all right. You’re not going to win everything. I never had a problem with somebody beating me as long as I think I’ve given it my best shot. Tom played better than I did that week and deserved to win.”
There were more cheers later in the evening when each man, separately, entered the packed dinning room of the Turnberry Hotel. As he sipped champagne in his room prior to dinner, Watson heard a piper start up on the terrace below and looked out of the window. There was the odd tear. He later told Corcoran for Duel in the Sun: “It was a wonderful sight to see. The stands, now emptied, the early evening sun… to see that and understand that you had just won against the best player who had ever played the game… that was a great feeling. That was when I fell in love with golf. I’d always loved it, but from that point forward it was a stronger love.”
THE OTHER OPEN: Who’s who of the leaderboard
Hubert Green, the reigning US Open champion, said:“I won the golf tournament. I don’t know what game those other two guys were playing.” He finished 11 behind Watson, 10 adrift of Nicklaus and as the only other player who finished under par.He went on to win the 1985 USPGA.
The top-eight players were all Americans, and 11 of the top-12, something that could not have happened before or since – before not enough American of quality made the trip, afterwards the stars of Europe emerged. Seven of the top-eight players were all major winners or would become so, a tribute to the quality of the course. Lee Trevino was fourth,while Ben Crenshaw, a future two-time Masters winner, shared fifth place with George Burns,who would be the runner-up at the 1981 US Open. Arnold Palmer was seventh, his last ever top-10 finish in a major, and Raymond Floyd, who had won two of his four majors at this time, was eighth. Johnny Miller, the defending champion, was among those sharing ninth place, as were John Schroeder, the first round leader and the son of 1949 Wimbledon champion Ted Schroeder, and Mark Hayes, the first man to score 63 at the Open, doing having so after just taking up putting cack-handed, something he dropped a week later.
Also in ninth place was Tommy Horton, the Jersey professional who was the leading home player for the second year running. Horton returned to his room in the hotel on the Saturday night to find a case of champagne from the hotel manager who had won his large bet that Horton would be the leading British professional.
Peter Thomson and Howard Clark were joint 13th on 286,while Seve Ballesteros, in the midst of his national service in the Spanish Air Force,was a shot further back with Tom Weiskopf and Gary Player on 288.
On 289, after final rounds of 80 having both started the day in joint fourth place, were Roger Maltbie and Gaylord Burrows. Maltbie was the second round leader.His mother, Joan,was from Scotland, and met his father, Lin, an American pilot in World War II, after he had been smuggled back from France by the Resistance after being shot down. Maltbie rarely played in the Open again as the following year he went to the Quad Cities Classic, the event opposite the Open in the States, and met his wife there so also wanted to return. He is now an on-course commentator with NBC in the States. Burrows was born in India to British parents, grew up in Africa,went to college in America, played golf in Asia, Japan, South Africa and South America before winning a playoff to get through Final Qualifying to play in his only major at Turnberry. In an “odd one out” picture hanging in the Turnberry clubhouse he is seen with Watson, Nicklaus, Trevino and Player.
Nick Faldo finished joint last of those who made the third round cut, Greg Norman, the 1986 Open champion, bowed out after 54 holes,while Amateur champion Peter McEvoy missed the 36-hole cut. He had played with Nicklaus and Player on the first two days and decided there that he was better off staying as an amateur rather than turning professional. He won the Amateur again the following year.