Tony Jacklin is a hero. I think every golf fan in Europe would agree with that.
He’s a two-time major winner, the first man ever to hold both the Open Championship and the US Open at the same time and before Tony came along, the Ryder Cup was a biennial reminder of America’s golfing supremacy.
Everything changed, though, when he helped expand the Britain and Ireland team to become European, first captaining them in 1983. He inspired them to challenge the USA, establishing a winning mentality that has continued – almost uninterrupted – ever since.
Before his captaincy, the Americans had won it on 20 occasions out of 24; since then, Europe has won or tied it a dozen times out of 18.
As a result, the Ryder Cup is one of my favorite sports events, but I am just a little conflicted.
Here’s why: Tony Jacklin is also the man who tarnished my Mum’s wedding!
Growing up as a young boy in Edinburgh, I often heard about the exploits of Scottish sports stars like the footballer Kenny Dalglish and the Olympic sprint champion Alan Wells, but the Englishman Jacklin was the first one I can truly remember.
The stories around the family dinner table specifically revolved around his victory at The Open Championship in 1969.
Fifty years ago, on July 12, Jacklin won the Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes and it was a really big deal for British golf.
That same day was also a big deal for my family; some 200 miles further north, Norman Riddell and Leila White said “I do” at the Murrayfield Parish Church in Edinburgh. Since it was a day that would change all of their lives, I can only imagine the excitement they would have been feeling that morning.
Jacklin told me, “in our business, major championships are it. I knew as a young man that if I won a major championship then I’d never be forgotten.”
These days, major championships are settled on Sunday afternoons, but in 1969 the Open still finished on Saturday. Jacklin teed off in his final round with a two-stroke lead. “I was pretty tough mentally,” he recalled.
“I’d won in Jacksonville the previous year, playing on the last day with Arnold Palmer. His fans were known as ‘Arnie’s Army’ and they didn’t care much about anybody except him.”
Jacklin says that experience stood him in good stead. “There was a real sense of expectation in the UK that summer.”
The 1968 Open champion concurred. Gary Player told me that “Britain was starving for a major championship winner, the last one had been Max Faulkner in 1951, a gap of 18 years. Tony’s win gave British golf such a spurt.”
By the 18th hole, Jacklin says all that anticipation had turned into celebration. “What a corker!” cried the television commentator Henry Longhurst, describing Jacklin’s final tee shot. As he marched up the fairway, Jacklin even lost his shoe in the rush of fans surging forward to congratulate him.
By then, my young parents had already walked up and back down the aisle and were enjoying their reception at the Ellersly House Hotel.
I should point out that this was all happening at one of the most momentous periods in human history; just four days later, Apollo 11 would blast off from The Kennedy Space Center and the following Sunday, Neil Armstrong was taking one small, but historic, step.
Despite that extraordinary feat of technological innovation, watching a sports event on television was very difficult. Cabling golf courses for broadcast was so expensive that Jacklin would often play events where only the last three holes were televised – in fact, that’s how he became the first golfer ever to score a televised hole-in-one. He aced the 16th at the 1967 Dunlop Masters.
My Uncle Jim White, one of the biggest sports fans in the family, reminded me that in 1969 there were no smart phones, no Internet and no video recorders to record pictures that were only just being televised in color. As my uncle put it, “the color was so badly represented that I thought for a number of years big Jack Nicklaus had an orange face!”
So, he hadn’t seen any of the golf in the first three rounds; the best he could do was follow the action via the “stop press” margin of the Edinburgh Evening News on the bus home from work.
For all the sports fans at the reception that afternoon, it must have been irresistible; the magnetic pull of an historic sports moment, even if it was only being shown on a small, grainy, black and white screen. By all accounts, the male guests packed into the room while the bride and her friends were left to chat among themselves in an adjacent room. It was, apparently, like the parting of the Red Sea.
My mum isn’t much of a sports fan, and she has no recollection of Jacklin’s big moment – her only view was a gallery of male backs and people leaping about, trying to get a better sight of the tiny screen. That is a vivid memory however, I’ve heard about it often!
Overshadowing the big day
Half a century later, my parents still disagree about Jacklin’s ’69 achievement. To my father, his triumph was “a feature of the wedding.” When I told my Mum that I’d spoken to Jacklin about this article, she texted “Has he apologized?”
I don’t think she was joking either, lamenting later “It was disappointing. That’s not quite how I imagined my wedding day would have turned out.”
I’m sure that her story is not unique and in fact, the advent of technology has almost certainly made sport and wedding conflicts even more problematic in the intervening years. And whilst many people might have sympathy with her, professional golfers do not.
Player laughed when I mentioned it, “I think golf does ruin a lot of days, whether it’s a funeral or the birth of a child.” Player still regrets that he missed the birth of his first daughter.
I suppose it was a less than auspicious start to their married life and unfortunately things didn’t improve much on their honeymoon. The Scottish weather was unseasonable for July (it was scorching) and the newlyweds got so badly sunburnt on Loch Faskally that they couldn’t bear to be touched for a week.
Jacklin also had a stressful ‘honeymoon.” He told me that he wanted to take a break in order to “contemplate the changes in my life. I wasn’t just ‘a golfer’ anymore.”
But his agent had other plans, instructing him that the next tournament was the biggest prize in golf, the Westchester Classic and he “couldn’t miss it.”
What should have been a joyous time for Jacklin was anything but; he missed the next four cuts and was brought crashing down to earth. “He ran me ragged, I was a pioneer in many respects; I was flying by the seat of my pants.”
His agent was Mark McCormack and these were the early days of IMG. “I came to realize it wasn’t about me, it was all about him.”
Tony Jacklin made just £4,250 pounds ($5,386) for winning the Open in 1969; he scoffs as he accurately recalls the exact amount.
These days, the winner is handed a cheque for almost $2 million. In 1969, my parents’ wedding reception cost 149 pounds, 14 shillings and 8 pence; The Scotsman newspaper reported this year that the average cost of a wedding in Scotland is more than $45,000. How times have changed.
This month, all are reflecting fondly on a day they will never forget, from half a century ago.
The following summer, Jacklin went on to win the US Open at Hazeltine and for a span of 84 years, he was the only European player to have won it. He was arguably defined by his glory years in the Ryder Cup and his legacy is a golf course that he built with Nicklaus in Florida.
“The Concession” memorializes a crucial putt that Nicklaus conceded to Jacklin in the 1969 Ryder Cup. It was a sporting gesture that halved not only the hole, but their match and the cup itself. As they shook hands, Nicklaus famously said “I knew you wouldn’t have missed, but I didn’t want to give you the chance.”
I mentioned my parents’ story to Nicklaus recently; “I hope they have a nice 50th and celebrate right along and have a glass of champagne with Tony,” he said, warmly.
Norman and Leila Riddell were successful in their own way, raising three sons with five grandchildren. Whilst I wasn’t there to see it, I’ll never think of their wedding day as tarnished or spoiled or ruined, or anything remotely negative – although it has been a fun story and my privilege to tell. How could it have been bad when so much good has come from it?
Marriage isn’t easy and until now I’ve only ever personally known two couples which have successfully made it to fifty years. I’m very proud of them.
Jacklin says that whilst he has one or two regrets, he’s very content with his life’s work; but he isn’t quite as excited by my story as I am. “I’ve had lots of people tell me over the years that it was a memorable day to them because of a wedding or the birth of a child. It’s kind of nice to be remembered for that.”
So this particular wedding wasn’t special to Tony Jacklin, but my Uncle – who gave my mum away that day, disagrees: “Leila and Norman have had their golden years, but, like Tony, they’ve had to work hard. That day spun magic for all of us.”