Tony Jacklin reflects on taming Royal Lytham, enduring Lee Trevino, and the sting of unfulfilled potential
He won the British Open and U.S. Open by age 25, surpassing the Big Three to become the world's best golfer. But he never won another major. Still "full of vim" at 68, Great Britain's Tony Jacklin reflects on taming Royal Lytham, enduring Lee Trevino, and the lingering sting of unfulfilled potential.
What do I remember most about the 1969 British Open? Winning, obviously. [Laughs] That was the ? ultimate. When I arrived at Lytham, I was confident and on the ? ascendance. I had a lot of support—the fans were pulling for me—which I didn’t have in America. I was on a mission. I was 25 and full of vim.
It’s a quirky course. You need to make your birdies on the outward nine, because it’s a tough finish coming in, with the wind against you. Links experience helps. Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood should be in it come Sunday. If only Lee could find a way to finally capitalize.
Westwood has had many opportunities in majors. I think he gets in his own way. He tries too hard. He’s not playing his game, not playing by instinct. Look at Phil Mickelson, McIlroy, Bubba Watson. It’s the guys who get in the flow who win majors. They enjoy it and play their games. Lee looks like he’s carrying the weight of the world. You have to expect good things to happen, and I don’t think Lee expects good things to happen. I’m not saying it’s easy, but he has to surrender to instinct.
I know all about not playing by instinct. I could have won a second Open Championship. I was playing with Lee Trevino the last two days at Muirfield, in 1972, and I witnessed all of his chip-ins. On the 71st hole, I had 15 feet for birdie. He was in trouble over the green. Then he nonchalantly chips in [for par], and I was in shock. I said to myself, “I’m not letting this happen,” but I was too aggressive with my putt and left it three or four feet past the hole and missed that.
That birdie putt is the mulligan I’d like. Fifteen feet? I could have rolled the damn thing up close with my eyes closed. No, I wasn’t a jabbering wreck. But I reacted to Lee’s chip-in by trying too hard, being too aggressive, when patience would have been the order of the day. I rushed things. I wasn’t true to my instinct.
Trevino’s endless banter was something you endured. He never, ever stopped talking, either to you or at you. He even talked during his swing. He’d swing his driver while muttering, “If I get this in the fairway, I’ll break him.”
I won the 1970 U.S. Open [at Hazeltine] by seven strokes. Before Graeme McDowell won in 2010, I was the only European winner for the previous 84 years. I think that’s because a lot of European players, like Monty, came over and tried a hit-and-run. They thought they could live in Europe, pop over to the U.S. for a few weeks and get it done. It’s not that easy. When I won my U.S. Open, I was on the PGA Tour full-time. I was committed.
Having a big lead in a U.S. Open sounds wonderful, but I had a four-shot lead going into Sunday and I was as nervous as I’ve ever been. I thought, “If I don’t get this done, I’ll be branded a choker.” I missed two four-footers early, which shook me up. Then on the ninth hole, I hit a 25-footer too hard; it hit the back of the hole, jumped up and went in! Instead of a nervous five-footer to save par, it was a birdie. That relaxed me.
A 54-hole lead in the U.S. Open is an emotional roller coaster. Before teeing off, I would have changed places with any form of humanity.
For a short time I had the British Open and U.S. Open trophies on my mantel. My goal was to be the best player in the world. I think I attained it. Briefly.
I should have won more than two majors. Why didn’t I? I was represented by [IMG founder] Mark McCormack. I won those majors and wanted to live in America full-time. He wanted me in Europe. He made it about what he wanted, not what I wanted, and I let him. He was an opportunist who wanted to make me a catalyst for golf in Europe. I was pulled in all different directions, playing small events in Italy, Sweden. It was “Do this, play here, cut this ribbon.” I was spent. A zombie. I was flying back and forth between the U.S. and Europe, and not in fancy private planes, either. After I won the British, I went out and missed four straight cuts. I should have taken more time to contemplate what it meant. What should have been the best month of my life was miserable.
I applaud Rory McIlroy for leaving [manager] Chubby Chandler. Chubby wanted him in Europe, and Rory wants to be in America, where you must live to be among the best players and best conditions. Rory can’t be his best while living in Holywood, Northern Ireland. I wish I would have made that decision.
I can’t think of anyone I admire more than Jack Nicklaus. Jack conceded that two-foot putt to me at the  Ryder Cup because he knew what my Open victory meant to British golf. He didn’t want to spoil that.
Under pressure, Jack saw with better clarity than anyone. Many’s the time he said to me, “The majors are the easiest to win because 90 percent of the guys don’t believe they can win it.” He flooded his mind with positive thoughts. He’s right. Winning is all about the brain box.
Jack’s major record is safe. To surpass him, Tiger would have to win as many majors as Seve won in his whole career. Tiger was utterly humiliated [by his scandal]. Once you go through that, you come out the other side a different person. He’s become erratic. He’s getting old. As you age, you change. It’s not gonna get easier, that’s for certain.
The best shot I ever saw was Seve’s 3-wood from the bunker on the 18th hole in the 1983 Ryder Cup, to the green 250 yards away. I was at the green. Jack, the American captain, had a closer look. We both agree. Genius. Greatest shot ever.
Ryder Cup pressure is unlike anything else. I remember Fred Couples in 1989. He missed a five-footer on 17 to go ? 1 up on Christy [O’Connor Jr.]. I saw an involuntary movement of his hands during his putt. I told Christy, “You’ve got him.” On 18, Couples missed the green with a 9-iron. All that pressure for your teammates, your family, your country—there’s no hiding place.
I was at the Western Open in 1975 when lightning struck Trevino and Jerry Heard. I was a fairway over, playing with Bobby Nichols. Bobby had a steel plate in his head. A bolt hit. He rolled over in a ball, shouting, “Oh my God!” while holding his head. Something about the electrical currents in the air. I had a burning sensation in my mouth. Everyone ran to the clubhouse. It was mayhem. All part of life’s rich tapestry.
I dream about golf. I’m on the tee but there’s no room to swing. A wall is constricting me. I recently dreamed I was on this high building looking down on a bridge. I felt a feeling of vertigo, as if I was being drawn down. It felt similar to the fear of steep downhill putts.
What would Sigmund Freud say? “Time to pack it in!”