Watson's greatest triumph in
golf's greatest dual - Turnberry '77

By Dermot Gilleece

Tears welled in Tom Watson's eyes as memories came flooding back. And while he continued to sit in quiet reflection, the images of Turnberry '77 and professional golf's greatest duel, gradually grew clearer. Soon he was crying openly and making no attempt to brush away the tears. Finally, he broke the silence. "I'd always loved golf," he said quietly, "but now it was a new type of love I could have."

That was in July 1986, when he was being interviewed by Frank Deford of "Sports Illustrated" to mark the return of the British Open to the Ailsa Course, widely regarded as the finest links on the west coast of Scotland. In the meantime, there had been three further Open victories for Watson, but none could compare with Turnberry, his greatest triumph.

Winners have no difficulty remembering. It was different, however, for the defeated Jack Nicklaus who, for probably the only time in an illustrious career, had played to the peak of his powers only to find that it wasn't good enough.

"I just don't remember a whole lot when I lose," he said with typical candour. Then he added: "But I don't remember a whole lot about the ones I win, either. It's just that when I win, people keep bringing them up, so I'm not allowed to forget."

By that stage, the capacity of Nicklaus for momentous conquest had become the stuff of legend. Yet at Turnberry, Watson had beaten him for a second time in only four months. And there were many who argued that the seeds of Watson's second Open victory were sown at Augusta National in April of that year.

Prior to the 1977 US Masters, he had tended to defer to Nicklaus. In fact it was felt that he held the older man in such esteem that he wouldn't dare beat him for a Major title.

Everything between them was to be changed utterly by a simple incident at Augusta's long 15th. Watson, in the following two-ball, was standing waiting on the fairway while Nicklaus putted out. And he was forced to continue waiting because of what he perceived to be an act of gamesmanship from his rival:

Nicklaus raised his putter towards him after sinking a birdie putt.


Jack Nicklaus. Photo by Getty Images 

The Bear always claimed he was simply acknowledging the cheers of the gallery, but Watson thought otherwise and confronted him after the round.

Nicklaus protested that he hadn't the faintest idea what it was all about, but for Watson, the mystique had been shattered.

By the time the pair arrived at Turnberry, Watson knew that Nicklaus was still the player to beat in a Major championship. In every other sense, however, the Bear was just another competitor.

Alfie Fyles, the Lancashire caddie who had guided Watson to victory at Carnoustie two years previously, was back on his bag. They had settled a bitter difference over money, which saw Fyles throw the cheque, as payment for Carnoustie, down on the floor with the acid remark: "You must need this more than me."

Claiming that there had been nothing this century in Britain or the US to compare with Turnberry, the inimitable Pat-Ward Thomas wrote in "Country Life" magazine: "Never have two great golfers remained so closely locked in mortal combat throughout the entire event; nor have two players taken such utter
command of a tournament."

That was a reference to the remark of the reigning US Open champion, Hubert Green, who, after finishing in third place, a full 10 strokes behind Nicklaus, said: "I won the golf tournament. I don't know what game those other two guys were playing."

As it happened, the other two guys were to trade shot for shot over the four days in the most breathtaking manner _ 68 in the first round, 70 in the second and 65 in the third, to be deadlocked on 203 after 54 holes. But it was only for Friday's third round that they were paired together for the first time.

Even those 65s were identical: six birdies and a bogey apiece. That was the round in which both players and their caddies scurried down from the eighth green to the rocks on the beach to take cover from an electric storm, before realising they would be safer in a BBC trailer.

Eager spectators jostled for position around the first tee when the pair set out in the final pairing, late on Saturday morning. Nicklaus was attired in a pale yellow sweater and dark blue slacks while Watson wore a light green shirt with green and orange checked slacks, supported by a broad, white belt.

It was the first time they had been in such a position, battling head to head with a Major title at stake. And as early as the second hole, the anticipated victory surge from Nicklaus seemed to be materialising, when he sank a 10-footer for birdie, against a bogey from his rival.


Jack Nicklaus. Photo by Getty Images

The Bear widened the gap to three strokes at the short, 167-yard fourth where he sank a 20-footer. Recalling that ominous position, Watson said almost a decade later: "Turnberry had an element of a Texas summer to it and I was the same way _ very calm inside the boiler, so to speak. I could feel the heat, but only as if it were around me."

For his part, Nicklaus knew after Augusta earlier in the year that he could take nothing for granted. As he would later remark: "If I'm playing Tom Watson, I know I have to win. With somebody else against you, maybe you feel they'll lose instead."

On the 411-yard fifth, Watson hit a five-iron approach to 15 feet and sank it for a birdie: the gap was now down to two strokes and it would never go higher. Down the 528-yard seventh which Nicklaus reached with a three iron, Watson hit his driver off the fairway for "my best shot of the day" to set up a birdie.

Another stroke was retrieved.

They were square after the eighth, where Watson was fortunate to see a 20-footer dive into the hole after he had struck it much more solidly than intended.

By that stage, Nicklaus felt obliged to ask the gallery marshals to try and control the milling crowds and during a delay of several minutes, he and his rival sat on their bags.

When they resumed, Nicklaus went ahead again after Watson bogeyed the ninth. And the Bear was two strokes clear when a 20-footer found the target at the 12th. Still Watson fought back, this time with a 12-footer for birdie at the next. And so it remained until the short 15th.

That was where Watson enjoyed the sort of break that tends to happen for a prospective champion. After leaving his tee-shot a full 70 feet wide of the pin, he decided to use his putter from off the green. As had occurred at the eighth, the pace was over-zealous but the cup got in the way and the ball dropped.

Nicklaus was just bending down to replace his ball on the green when Fyles happened to glance over at him. The caddie swears that the Bear was literally rocked back on his heels by the sight of Watson's ball going into the hole.


Watson back at Turnberry many years later. Photo by Getty Images

All the while, the pair had said very little to each other throughout the round. That was their way. Standing on the 16th tee, however, Watson turned to his rival and said: "This is what it's all about, isn't it?" To which Nicklaus replied: "You betcha."

They were still tied going to the long 17th where Watson made birdie, but Nicklaus blocked a four iron right of the green and failed to get up and down, missing from four feet. The Stanford graduate, who had been labelled a choker by his fellow-countrymen only a few years previously, was now a stroke ahead playing the last.

As they walked towards the 18th tee, Fyles said to Watson: "Go for the jugular." His man then took out a one iron and hit it up the left side of the fairway, clear of the bunker at 260 yards. Then, having hit iron off the tee for the previous three days, Nicklaus took out the driver.

Almost instantly, the Bear knew he was in trouble. Sure enough, instead of following the line of the fairway left, the ball went right, into deep rough. Watson went over to check his rival's lie, unsure whether it was playable.

His own ball was 172 yards from the flag and Fyles indicated a seven iron. "But I can only carry 160 to 165 with a six," Watson protested. "The way your adrenalin's pumpin' Tom ..." There was no need for Fyles to say more. Watson hit the seven and sent a glorious shot to within three feet of the pin.

Now it was the Bear's turn. Calling up all his formidable power, he hit an eight iron which carved out a huge divot. And miraculously, he achieved the direction and distance to get the ball on the green where it came to rest 32 feet from the flag. As Nicklaus walked after it, Scottish fans reverentially began dropping pennies, tu'penny pieces, even silver coins into the gash in the ground, as if to bribe the golfing gods to deliver a successful putt.

When both players reached the green, Watson had a premonition that Nicklaus would hole the birdie putt. And he was right. Still, his own nerve held firm. "I'm ready to win this thing now," he said to himself, sizing up his putt while Nicklaus tried to calm the gallery.

The putt which ended a titanic struggle, didn't go straight: it went into the right side of the cup. In an instant, Nicklaus was by his rival's side, saying: "I'm tired of giving it my best and not having it be good enough." Watson could only mutter "Thanks" by way of reply.

It was all over. He had ended with another 65 to Nicklaus's 66.

There could hardly have been more apt words to sum up a magnificent occasion than those by Ward-Thomas in the "Guardian". He wrote: "As Nicklaus smiled his congratulations and walked from the green, his arm about Watson's shoulders, we knew that this day would remain in the memory for ever more."




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