Turnberry 1977 remembered as the "Duel in the Sun"
Watson & Nicklaus battled in a final-round shootout
The Championship was decided on the last hole
The red-hot summer of 1977, the year a gap-toothed twenty-something from Kansas took down golf’s greatest in a final-round scrap like no other.
Forty years on and it is a battle which is still regarded as one of the finest sporting duels in history.
Last year’s British Open thrilled and captivated as Henrik Stenson versus Phil Mickelson unfolded at Royal Troon in an extraordinary contest where records were broken.
It is Stenson versus Mickelson which has the numbers, the history-making scores. Stenson’s 20-under 264 is the lowest score in major history and the 41-year-old Swede’s final-round eight-under-par 63 equaled the lowest score for a major championship round.
But that shootout did not come down to the final putt. It did not involve Jack Nicklaus, the most decorated player in history, being taken down by a player who would become the greatest links golfer of them all.
Turnberry 1977, a golfing bout so good that it is fondly remembered as the “Duel in the Sun.”
Mention it to golf fans not even born four decades ago and they will knowingly nod. Books have been written about it, a restaurant named after it and the 18th hole at Turnberry has been renamed after this never to be forgotten contest.
As the Open takes place in Britain this week, we remember the match that made history.
Scorched earth on a July Saturday
“I remember every one of his shots. And every one of mine.” Tom Watson.
The 27-year-old Watson and Nicklaus, 10 years his senior, had matched each other in the third round, shooting 65s to go into the final day three shots clear of Ben Crenshaw in third place.
All eyes were on the American pair. There was only one show in town.
Such was the scramble to get to the course to watch the fireworks, a few players needed police escorts through nearby farms to avoid the early-morning traffic jam on the single road that led to Turnberry Golf Course.
Would it be Nicklaus or Watson? Nicklaus, the blond statesman who had won 14 of his 18 majors by this time, had affectionately become known as the “Golden Bear.” Watson had won the Open in Carnoustie in 1975 and his first Masters earlier that year, seeing off Nicklaus down the last stretch.
They were premier performers of their time and would, in the final 18 holes on Scotland’s west coast, produce a show for the ages.
Contributing to the sense of theater was the British weather. Rain had become an unfamiliar sight in this part of the world during that sticky summer. The course had been scorched; the rough was wispy straw, footsteps created dust clouds which hung in the air on an already chokingly-tense day.
A stampede, caddies fearing the worst
“I thought for sure Jack was going to get trampled.” Angelo Argea, Nicklaus’ caddie.
Nicklaus started in sparkling form, going three shots clear after four holes. Would class prevail?
Watson, the young talent retaining his poise despite being in the company of greatness, clawed himself closer to the 14-time major winner, sinking a 15-foot putt for a birdie on the 5th and following it up with another monster putt on the 8th. Kerpow! This was golf resembling the opening strip of a Marvel comic.
A bogey on the 9th put the Missouri-native one behind, but it was game on and the crowd knew it.
Thousands jostled for prime position, necks craned, eyes were as wide as novelty-shop eyeballs. Fans knew they were witnessing something special and, on the 9th hole, the masses spilled onto the fairway.
“I feared for my man,” Nicklaus’ caddie, Angelo Argea, would later say, describing the scene as a stampede.
Watson described the crowd as “out of control” as they attempted to dash in front of the players, readying themselves for the next shot.
Nicklaus, sporting a canary yellow jumper and navy trousers for the finale, refused to play until the gallery retreated behind the cordon and Watson waited with him. For 15 minutes they held their friendly fire before resuming their epic battle.
“It was certainly not the genteel, well-behaved galleries you always heard about at the Open,” Roger Maltbie, who would finish 21 shots behind that day, would tell Michael Corcoran, the author of “Duel In The Sun.”
‘This is what it’s about’
“You’ve got him now, sir, you’ve got him now,” Alfie Fyles, Watson’s caddie.
Though all around them was a wild frenzy, Watson and Nicklaus kept their calm. Nicklaus, already a two-time winner of golf’s oldest major, skipped ahead, draining a 22ft birdie on the 12th to regain a two-shot lead before Watson struck back on the 13th.
Two holes later, Watson – who in a garish green T-shirt and checked trousers stood out for his attire as well as his play – produced the shot of the day.
Having missed the green, Watson had left himself with a 60ft birdie putt. On and on the ball rolled and rolled until, astonishingly, it dropped into the cup.
The pair were level, tied on 11-under par with three holes to play. The crowd roared in approval.
“It changed the momentum of the round for Jack and it changed the momentum of the round for me,” Watson would later say.
Onwards they marched, onto the 16th tee, and it was here that Watson looked at his rival and uttered the often repeated words: “This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
“You bet it is,” came Nicklaus’ response.
For another 40 minutes, the knee-knocking tension continued.
With one hole to go, Nicklaus missed a birdie chance and, for the first time, Watson edged ahead. It would all come down to the 72nd hole of the tournament.
Nicklaus got his big stick out of the bag on the 18th, but pulled it into the rough, near a gorse bush. His approach shot with an eight-iron came to the rescue, the ball magically kicking onto the green, but the great champion had left himself a 35-yard putt.
“You’ve got him now, sir, you’ve got him now,” said Watson’s caddie Alfie Fyles, who had badly sprained his wrist in the stampede.
The final hole, the championship decider
“I don’t know what game those other two guys were playing,” Hubert Green.
The new pacesetter, who had just sent a 178-yard 7-iron two feet from the cup, was not one to tempt fate. He told his caddie that Nicklaus would hole the putt, and he was proved right. Birdie for Nicklaus. Over to Watson. Could his nerve hold?
Watson waited for the crowd’s din to subside, but on an on the spectators roared as they marveled at Nicklaus’ artistry.
As Watson lined up, the fans were, in Watson’s words, “still going wild.”
But Watson could wait no more. He picked up his marker and that is when Nicklaus raised his hands to silence the crowd. Within seconds it was quiet enough to hear a pin drop.
“I hit it right center and the Open Championship was mine,” Watson reminisced.
Nicklaus put an arm around the shoulder of the new champion and told his conqueror: “I gave you my best shot, but it wasn’t good enough.”
The pair strode off, immortality assured. They had lapped the field, finishing 10 and 11 shots clear of the third-placed player.
“I won this golf tournament,” Hubert Green, that player in third, would famously say. “I don’t know what game those other two guys were playing.”