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Mashup at Muirfield: Trevino vs. Nicklaus in the 1972 British Open

Lee Trevino, 1972 British Open
Alamy
After a clutch par on the 72nd hole, Trevino smooched his second Claret Jug.

He spoke too soon. Nicklaus, wearing brown slacks and a butter-yellow shirt, came out swinging, going 5-under through 10. When he stiffed his approach at 11, Muirfield's record crowds erupted. Only three times before had a golfer won the first two majors of the year. Hogan had won a third, the British Open, in 1953. No modern player had won all four. The Slam was back on.

Nicklaus, overwhelmed by the noise as he walked down the 11th fairway, wiped tears off his cheeks. "Come on, Jack," said Nicklaus's longtime British Open caddie, Jimmy Dickinson. "We don't have time for that. Let's get moving." Nicklaus did. After twice backing off while Trevino and Jacklin eagled the par-5 ninth, he birdied 11 to climb into a three-way tie for the lead.

"I was right in the middle of it all," Nicklaus says now.

And then... he stalled. He stopped making birdies, and his tee shot missed short and left of the green on the par-3 16th. His chip rolled five feet left of the hole, and with bagpipe music wafting over the Scottish estuary, he missed the right-to-left putt. Bogey.

"I got to the last three holes needing to finish the same way I finished in 1966 if I wanted to win again," Nicklaus says. "I stood there on the 16th tee and thought about it to myself -- I needed to finish 3-4-4."

Instead, after failing to hit the fairway on the par-5 17th hole, he finished 4-5-4. Still, he had a chance. He signed his card and waited to see if 66 would be enough. Jacklin and Trevino were one shot ahead, but Jacklin could feel the pressure of trying to win so close to home, and Trevino was beginning to wobble.

Thousands of holes make up a career; few are truly memorable. For Trevino, the 17th would be the most bizarre hole of his life. Spectators lined the right side of the fairway, waiting to see if Jacklin and Trevino would be bit players in the Grand Slam Open, or make history of their own. Trevino stood over his ball on the tee.

"All of a sudden," says Willie Aitchison, Trevino's caddie for all of Trevino's UK starts, "this photographer crosses the fairway. So Lee backs off and lines up again to strike the ball. Then another guy with a camera comes behind the first, following in his tracks."

Agitated, Trevino again backed off. Finally, he swung and hit an ugly hook about 200 yards, his ball settling into one of Muirfield's 190-odd bunkers. "I'd never seen him duck-hook a ball," says Aitchison, now 84 and living in Glasgow. "He could hardly stand in the bunker, it was so small."

The caddie tried to talk his man down, but Trevino was furious, and he didn't hit the fairway or the green with any of his next three shots. Says Jacklin, "I felt he was on his way out." Near the scorer's table, Nicklaus's caddie, Dickinson, cried out to his boss, "Trevino's blown!" He was lying four, staring at bogey, maybe worse.

Aitchison wandered over to look at his boss's ball behind the green. "I fancied the pitch," Aitchison recalls. "It was a perfect lie."

They were tied, with Jacklin sizing up an 18-foot birdie putt and Trevino poised to make a big number. Trevino muttered something to the effect that the tournament was all but over. Then he grabbed his 9-iron, glanced at the hole about 30 feet away, and jabbed at the ball.

From Anderson's New York Times account:

Unknown: "He just holed his chip!"

Dickinson (hurling his caddie bib in disgust): "He holed a chip shot for a 5!"

Nicklaus: "What?"

In the third round, from a horrid lie in the bunker on 16, Trevino had hacked out and watched his ball smack the flagstick and drop into the cup. He laughed, then chipped in again on 18. Now he'd done it again in the fourth round, making three hole-outs in 20 holes.

Stunned, Jacklin was overly aggressive with his birdie try and three-putted for bogey. Trevino, now leading by one over both Jacklin and Nicklaus, let playing partner Jacklin arrive first at the 18th tee, so that Trevino would have less time to stand and contemplate his own tee shot. "When I'm on the tee," Trevino told Aitchison, "hand me that driver as fast as you can."

Trevino split the fairway and hit his approach to eight feet for an easy, two-putt par to ice the win. Jacklin bogeyed to finish third. He would never again make a serious run at a major. "What happened to Tony at Muirfield," says Irishman John O'Leary, who finished well back that week, "was the end of him playing at that level."

"Jack and Arnold both came up to me at dinner that night and said, 'Don't let [your bad luck] affect you,' " says Jacklin, now 68 and living in Florida. "But it's hard not to. I was always taught, 'If at first you don't succeed, try again. Try harder.' Flukes or luck was never part of the equation in my head."

Trevino had prevailed, despite his carousing and flying to the wrong airport at the start of the week. Expected to fly into Edinburgh, the Trevino troupe had decamped at Prestwick and zigzagged to the course in a rented van, getting horribly lost along the way. By the time Trevino sauntered into the clubhouse in black cowboy boots, Nicklaus was already in his spikes, grinding. As Dan Jenkins wrote in Sports Illustrated, "What can be said of Trevino and how he actually won? How can it be accounted for? Nicklaus worked for more than a week at Muirfield, while Trevino arrived late. Wearing a planter's hat and cracking jokes, he practiced only two days."

But, in fact, he'd practiced much more than that. Trevino insists he didn't make camp in Killeen with the objective of thwarting the Nicklaus Slam. "It just turned out that way," Trevino says. "And we didn't beat Jack. He lost it."

Of course there was the chip-in, for which Trevino does take responsibility. Maybe he quick-hit it. Maybe, as he said, it was a "give-up shot." Or maybe it was another victory for the subconscious mind. Point. Shoot. Repeat.

"I just walked up and hit it," Trevino says, "exactly as I'd done in Killeen."

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