“The Duel in the Sun”
By: Claudia Mazzucco – On this day, July 9, 1977, Tom Watson defeated Jack Nicklaus by a single shot in which has often been called the Open of Opens. Both finished so far ahead of the field as to have Hubert Green, in his distance third place (ten behind Jack), declaring, “I won the tournament I played in.”
The victory gave Watson his sixth win and the second major title of the year. His 72-hole total was 268, which was a new record by eight shots. That was 12 below par of the Ailsa course at Turnberry in the southwest coast of Scotland. Set against the spectacularly beautiful background of the Firth of Clyde, the Isle of Arran and Ailsa Crag, Turnberry staged its first Open this year. It was certainly the most scenic of Britain’s links. The Ailsa course had 6,875 yards with par 70.
In the first 54 holes, Watson and Nicklaus returned identical scores of 68, 70 and 65 which gave them a three-stroke bulge on the nearest pursuers and set the scene for a thriller final day.
The last round was played on Saturday. Nicklaus birdied the second hole while Watson made bogey. Another birdie on the 4th gave Nicklaus a three-stroke lead but Watson just would not go away. He got a birdie on the 5th and then on the 6th green he had faced a crucial putt for par. He said, “It was a difficult, left-to-right putt, the toughest putt a right-hander can face. It was a very, very good putt. Every shot was crucial because I was behind.” On the next hole Watson hit a solid driver from the fairway that even Jack stood and admired. Yet his brilliance scarcely made a dent in big Jack. He kept his lead as the gallery gathered around the two men. Tom caught the Bear with a birdie putt on the 8th.
Fans broke through the ropes on the 9th and a mass of humanity spilled on to the fairway. It was chaos. “It was a stampede,” said Nicklaus’s caddie, Angelo Argea. “I thought for sure Jack was going to get trampled.”
Watson made a couple of birdies of his own and came back from three strokes down to tie. Nicklaus subdued him anew with a 22/25-footer at the 12th. With six holes left, Jack was two shots ahead.
At the par-3 15th hole, Tom hit the shot which would win him the championship: he holed out for birdie 2 from 60 feet off the green. The ball hopped in the air, raced across the grass, hit the flagstick and dived into the cup, bringing Watson into a tie once more. He has always have the ability to step back and appreciate his role in golf’s history. When they went to the 16th tee, he smiled at Jack, and said, “This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
Jack smiled back, “You bet it is.”
Watson seized the ultimate margin of victory with a birdie at the (par-5, 500 yards) 17th which Nicklaus failed to match when he missed a downhill four-footer and settled for par. Tom absolutely stung a perfect 3-iron right over the flag and onto the green, where he had a putt for eagle from 20-feet.
Watson hit a one-iron down the fairway on the par-4 finishing hole, followed by a seven-iron to two-and-a-half feet. With nothing to lose, Jack pulled out his driver and attempted a more aggressive line over the left fairway bunkers. Instead, he blocked his tee-shot way right, the ball bounding into deep rough and under the edge of a gorse bush.
Playing first, Watson struck a 7-iron to two-and-a-half feet from the hole. Now it looked as if he had the championship in the bag but Nicklaus was not beaten yet. He took a roundhouse swing with an 8-iron and hammered his way out of the rough and on to the green. His ball stopped on the right front edge of the green, 35/40 feet from the hole. He made the putt for a birdie. Even though he had been half-expecting it, Watson was more than somewhat shaken. His two-and-a-half-footer seemed to be stretching in front of his very eyes. He said, “As I lined up my putt, the crowd was still going wild. Then Jack put his hands up to quiet the crowd.” But they were quiet only for the time it took Watson to take a couple of brisk practice strokes and roll his ball squarely into the cup for the win by one. He had finished the round with four birdies over the last six holes.
Nicklaus threw his arm around the champion’s shoulder and walked him toward the scorer’s tent. The crowd was still cheering. After this magnificent confrontation, Nicklaus shook his head and said, “I just could not shake him.” It had been a display of golf and sportsmanship no one would ever forget.
Claudia M. Mazzucco is a researcher at Golf Channel and teacher of History of Golf at the PGA of Argentina, in Buenos Aires. She is the author of Legendary Lessons (2016), El Golf de los Tiempos, A Novel (2002) and The Guide of Golf Courses in Argentina (2003). She received the PGA Award from the PGA of Argentina in 2005