The partners of Turnberry, the course located on the southwest coast of Scotland and which during World War II became one of the RAF air bases, could not have dreamed that its premiere at the British Open would be so anthological. After many years of waiting They were commissioned to organize the 1977 tournament and fate wanted to give them a one-on-one between two most extraordinary players who have possibly experienced the goalF. two legends, Tom Watson y Jack Nicklaus, they wasted magic over two days until they decided the tournament in the last blow after hours of frenzy. This week, when a new edition of the British Open is taking place, the BBC plans to release a documentary with the intention of doing justice to the best match in history.
1977 was a particularly dry summer in the British Isles. It could be verified in that edition of the tournament. The course appeared burnt in places, with yellow grass and excessive dust billowing from the dirt paths that run through it. A strange landscape for a British Open traditionally associated with the fight against the weather. Only the inevitable wind from the sea and an untimely storm, especially on Friday, added difficulties to those of an already very complicated course full of traps.
Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus were arguably the two best players in the world (Seve hadn’t quite reached the top yet) although the two arrived in very different circumstances due to the ten years difference between them. With 37 years in tow, Jack Nicklaus had accumulated fourteen victories in “majors”, two of them in the British, and no one could argue that we were facing the best player that golf has ever produced. The “Fatty from Ohio,” the nickname his rivals mischievously nicknamed him when he hit the pro circuit, had disappeared and been replaced by the “Golden Bear.” Tom Watson, from the proud state of Kansas as he himself liked to repeat, was supposed to be the one chosen to dethrone Nicklaus at some point. At the age of 27, he had won two majors, a British Open and the Augusta Masters contested only a few months before the two met at Turnberry in 1977.
The tagging that Nicklaus and Watson gave each other that week was exceptional. First in the distance, then face to face. The two delivered a card of two strokes below par on the first day, which placed them in third position, a couple of shots from the leader. In the second round, in which the field was tougher and the results were generally discreet, both men traced their markers again and remained with two strokes below par. They were only one behind the leader, the American Roger Maltbie, and it already seemed that the tournament was beginning to lean towards a duel between the two, although other candidates appeared on the scene such as Lee Treviño and Hubert Green (equaled with them after those first two days). or the surprising and luminous Seve Ballesteros who, at only twenty years and one year after having narrowly lost that same tournament, was a blow behind.
The excitement of the public was so great that the match had to be stopped for 20 minutes
As luck would have it, Nicklaus and Watson were paired for the third day, which meant a sentence for the rest of the contenders for the final victory. Driven by their infinite ambition and their extreme quality, the two North Americans pushed themselves to the maximum to offer a brilliant afternoon of golf in which only a small storm left over that made their game stop for twenty minutes. The rest was a festival in which both found their greatest motivation in what their rival was doing. They closed the day with 65 hits (five below par despite the fact that the field was not easy) and that was the ruin for the rest of the candidates. The day closed with Nicklaus and Watson at the top of the standings while the third classified (a Ben Grenshaw who had played splendidly) was already three shots away and it was taken for granted that in the last day no one would be able to beat both. It could be the case that one failed, but a collapse of both entered beyond all expectations.
Turnberry prepared for the final day, held on Saturday, July 9, and in which one of the organisation’s great fears was confirmed: the traffic problem. The field then only had a small access road that collapsed all morning due to the thousands of fans who wanted to attend that duel that promised to be anthology: the two best players in the world playing the British one face to face after three identical laps (68,70 and 65). Beyond the level that both offered in that memorable duel, one of the great news of the day was the crowd that accompanied them and that forced the British from that moment on to be much more restrictive in access to avoid many of the scenes that took place. they saw during the day.
Nicklaus, who chose a yellow jersey and blue pants for that day, began the day much more settled. He asserted his mettle and the habit of finding himself in these kinds of situations before a Watson as volcanic as his clothing (checkered pants and a green shirt). On hole four the advantage in favor of the “Golden Bear” had gone after three shots.. A delicate moment from which Watson came out with stratospheric two putts to compress the classification and be within a single shot. The first hour and a half of play showed that Nicklaus’ game was much more stable (not a bogey on the day and he managed to sign eight pairs in a row) while Watson, more explosive and impetuous, alternated brilliant moments with small errors.
When the game went through the ninth hole the crowd could no longer contain themselves. There were so many thousands who followed the game that they began to invade the streets to get a better position and every time the last player hit, there was a stampede to try to find a hole to attend the next hit. A situation that endangered the players themselves and caused Watson’s caddy to be run over and twist his wrist in the fall. The organization stopped the game for twenty minutes trying to bring some sanity to that mess. It only served relatively well because the races, the pushing and the madness continued for the rest of the afternoon. As Roger Maltbie said that he was following the match “not the gentle, well-mannered crowd we’ve heard so much about at the British Open.”
A Nicklaus birdie on the twelfth hole put him two shots ahead, but Watson then pulled the magic out of his hat. He responded on the thirteenth and on the fifteenth he holed a prodigious putt from almost twenty meters that caused a wild shouting. They were even with only three holes to play. There was no better possible outcome to that week of golf. At the exit of the sixteenth, in the midst of a terrible tension, they met their eyes and for the first time in a long time they struck up something resembling a conversation: “I suppose that this is what it is about” Watson told him smiling. To which Jack replied: “Don’t doubt it.” Both signed the par on that hole, but on the next Watson, who was still illuminated, achieved another birdie and for the first time he saw himself ahead in the classification. Only the complicated eighteen remained in which Nicklaus did not go well. Watson placed the ball with his second shot one meter from the flag while Jack left an almost impossible putt of more than eleven meters from the edge of the green and with a very pronounced fall. Watson’s caddy Alfie Fyles, told him at that moment “you already have it, sir, you already have it”. But the one from Kansas looked at him and said: “He’s going to put it in, I don’t know how, but he’s going to make that putt”. The crowd held their breath for a few minutes. Nicklaus focused and made possibly one of the best putts of his long and remarkable career. Failing it was already saying goodbye to the tournament. As if by remote control, after overcoming the unevenness along the way, the ball fell asleep at the bottom of the hole and the explosion of the public, who dreamed of a playoff the following day at eighteen holes, according to the regulations at that time for the British Open, was thunderous. A madness never seen. Nicklaus himself was forced to hold back the mob. Like a priest conducting a service, he raised his arms for silence and the thousands of fans fell silent instantly. Watson didn’t hesitate too long to make the short putt he needed to win the tournament. Under a stony silence, he hit the ball decisively and sealed his victory with 65 shots on the last day, only one less than his rival. Nicklaus went to shake his hand and they left the green shoulder to shoulder like two colleagues who had just finished their Sunday game. But they had just given away one of the great episodes in the history of the sport, the one that would always be known as the “Duel in the Sun”, the name with which the 18th hole at Turnberry was baptized. The one who best explained it was Hubert Green, third classified ten shots from second, who said shortly after: “I won this golf tournament because I have no idea what sport those two guys were playing.”
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