A Bonny Victory: Nicklaus wins 1978 British Open

Peter Robinson

This article first appeared in the July 24, 1978, issue of Sports Illustrated.

As long as a man has to go for a walk on a golf course, there is hardly a better place than straight up the last fairway at St. Andrews, where one is surrounded by 500 years of history and embraced by the buildings of the old town itself. It is especially wonderful if you do it the way Jack Nicklaus does. Nicklaus made the walk again last week with 30,000 warmly sentimental Scots creating enough noise to have drowned out the roar of a squall howling in off the North Sea.

The scene, in fact, would have made a nice Christmas card for Jack to send out this year. After all of the crazy things that had gone on for four rounds, involving golfers from a grand assortment of nations, it came down to Nicklaus winning another British Open, another major championship. For those who are counting, it was his third British Open and major victory No. 17, which can now be filed away with the others: the five Masters, the four National PGAs, the three U.S. Opens and the two U.S. Amateurs.

Not many of those victories could have been sweeter than this one, however, for Nicklaus is 38. He had gone nearly three years without winning a big one, and many of his fellow pros were starting to question whether he might ever win another. It seemed possible that Jack had reached a stage in his career where he could no longer produce the clutch shot in a major tournament or sink the critical putt. Last year, for example, Nicklaus stood on the 71st tee tied for the lead in three different major championships — the Masters, the British Open and the PGA — and lost all of them.

In last Saturday's final round at St. Andrews, Jack stood on the 70th tee and found himself staring rather unbelievingly at a chap named Simon Owen. This was one of the most important sporting' events in the world, and Simon Owen of New Zealand was suddenly leading it by one stroke over Jack Nicklaus with only three holes to play. It was precisely at this moment that Jack Nicklaus became the Jack Nicklaus of his previous years, and Simon Owen became the Simon Owen whose last accomplishment as a pro golfer was winning the 36-hole Skol-Lager individual title in 1976 at an event mostly familiar to the Scottish waiters and chambermaids at Gleneagles, where it was played.

All sorts of near immortals had been in contention for this British Open, including a group of talented Americans led by Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw, each of whom shared the lead at one time or another. But in the last round Watson faded sadly and Crenshaw stumbled, and it was Owen, of all people, who hung around to annoy Nicklaus. Now, after chipping in for a birdie from 25 yards away on the 15th hole, Owen was in the lead and Nicklaus was thinking that maybe the gods were going to deal him another disappointment despite the splendid golf he had played throughout the tournament.

There on the 16th tee, Jack thought of Turnberry last year when Tom Watson had rolled in a birdie from across the 15th green, which was the blow that sent him toward defeat in their memorable duel. "I've been here before," Nicklaus said to himself.

Owen hadn't. And that probably was what accounted for his second shot on the 16th, which he hit clean over the green, putting himself in a place where the best he could hope for was a bogey 5. For his second shot, Nicklaus struck one of those nine-irons of his that seem to be inhaled by the flagstick. It got to about six feet from the pin.

The situation was obvious. If Jack could make one of those putts he had been missing earlier in the week, there would be a two-stroke swing on the scoreboard, and he would be the leader with the toughest hole known to mankind — the 17th at St. Andrews, the Road Hole — coming up to face the two of them.

Who would you want at the Road Hole, Jack Nicklaus or Simon Owen?

Nicklaus did, in fact, nail the birdie putt at the 16th. drilling the ball into the heart of the cup. Just like the old days. It was the putt he needed at the time he needed it.

No one, then, was much surprised that on the terrible 17th Simon Owen — 27, unknown, inexperienced and surely overwhelmed by the thousands gazing at him — would hit a bad drive and dump his second shot onto the road at the Road Hole. You can make almost any kind of score on the 17th. a 461-yard par-4 that bends in a dogleg to the right and has what the Scots call a "gathering bunker" left of the green, not to mention a green set as tight to the road as a hitchhiker.

If Nicklaus was the hero of the championship, the Road Hole was certainly the villain. Over and over, it provided drama of the kind that pleases those who enjoy horror movies. It embarrassed almost everyone, and some it slaughtered, wringing bogeys, double bogeys and even worse from its victims. The hole took Severiano Ballesteros out of the tournament. It chilled Arnold Palmer with two 7s just when he was in the process of taking everyone on a sentimental journey. It hammered a little fellow named Tsuneyuki Nakajima with a 9 in Friday's third round — incredibly, after he had reached the green safely in 2. That unfortunate bit of business hurtled Nakajima into a tie for 17th at the end; with a par there instead of the 9, Nakajima would have wound up tied for second place with Owen and three Americans who could not quite solve all St. Andrews' subtleties — Ben Crenshaw, Raymond Floyd and Tom Kite.

Crenshaw, who finished with a fury — three birdies on the last four holes — was the only player who actually conquered the Road Hole. Yet, though he played it with three pars and a birdie, he still did not win the tournament, a fact that might go down as one of the curiosities of the year. But after playing superbly most of the week, he lost his shot at the tournament with a double bogey on the 4th hole of the final 18. There was too much ground to make up after that, what with Nicklaus playing so well and Owen doing all manner of extraordinary things, such as registering a third-round 67.

But then Owen botched up the 16th and 17th, and it was time for Nicklaus finally to play the Road Hole well. He had bogeyed it three rounds in a row'. This time Jack smashed a three-wood off the tee into the middle of the fairway, safely away from the Old Course Hotel on his right, a god-awful structure that sits where the railway sheds once were. Then he hit a safe six-iron into the front swale of the green where he would rely on his ability to get down in two putts from 50 feet. His lag putt up and over the varying undulations on the green was a thing of beauty, and it came to rest a foot from the cup.

For all practical purposes, that was the championship. All Nicklaus had to do afterward was make a tidy 4 on the last hole, which was only a drive and run-up with a trailing wind, and then enjoy the stroll up the fairway toward the Royal and Ancient clubhouse, past the intersection of Links and Grannie Clark's Wynd and by the towering grandstands that make it seem as if a golfer is competing in a football stadium.

Actually, a change in the wind on the last day at St. Andrews gave Nicklaus an advantage over the other serious contenders, because he had won there in 1970 when the course played exactly as it did last Saturday and as it had not played in the previous rounds. For three days, the golfers had the wind with them going out and against them coming in from the 12th tee. Consequently, everyone would assault the Old Course early and then struggle to survive coming home. When another Japanese, Isao Aoki, led the first day with a 68 despite his putting style — nose of the club up, hands held improbably low — it was said to have been because the course was benign, and what did an Oriental know about it, anyway?

Possibly it was because the wind stayed the same for the next two rounds that Aoki remained tied for the lead with Crenshaw and Ballesteros after 36 holes. Tom Watson and Peter Oosterhuis took command after 54 holes with a one-stroke lead on Nicklaus and Aoki and no more than a three-stroke lead on a total of eight other golfers. If Aoki could still be close, if Crenshaw could cope with his errant tee shots, if Oosterhuis, with his erratic driving, could do the same, then the course must be playing rather oddly.

Nicklaus didn't really need a shift in the wind to feel he would do well on the final round. From tee to green his game had been in better shape all week than it had for any major championship in quite a while. He began tamely enough with rounds of 71 and 72, which left him only one under par and four shots off the pace. but he blamed that on his putting, and he knew some putts had to drop eventually. As a matter of fact, he two-putted every single green during Thursday's second-round 72, which tells a lot about how he was playing otherwise. It was a three-under 69 on the third day that finally got him into the fight, and it was during dinner the night before the last 18 that he decided he was going to play very well the next day. He got up from his fried haddock to change his departure plans from Saturday night to Sunday morning. More time to celebrate, right?

If there was a key moment for Nicklaus early in the last round, it was when he was able to gouge the ball out of the trash on the 4th hole with a seven-iron, then hit a wedge out of more garbage onto the green and save his par. Otherwise, it was a case of waiting for a birdie putt to drop. One had back on the 3rd, another would at the 12th. neither of them from any great distance. And then he would get the killer at the 16th.

In an effort to account for his victory, Nicklaus said. "Experience counts at St. Andrews." Indeed, it is said that there are three British Opens: the one played in Scotland, the one played in England and the one played at St. Andrews. How true that is.

And if Jack himself did not have the words to describe what St. Andrews means, maybe Crenshaw did. At the presentation ceremony, it was Ben who said to the Scots, "I want to thank nature for making this golf course."

That got almost as big a roar as Nicklaus' stroll. Both were a glory to the game last week.

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