The Duel in the Sun: Watson vs. Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977

August 19, 2011

Tom Watson, more than almost any great player of modern times, had the ability to step back and appreciate his role in golf’s drama. The most famous example is when he turned to Jack Nicklaus on the sixteenth tee at Turnberry in the final round of the 1977 Open Championship and said, “This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?”

Indeed, the situation and the setting were extraordinary. Watson and Nicklaus were tied at 11-under par with three holes to play, ten strokes ahead of eventual third-place finisher Hubert Green. Clouds of dust from marching spectators hung above the fairway. The sun, from its perch over the sea, cast an amber glow over the Ailsa course and the sprawling hotel on the ridge above the coast road.

Nicklaus smiled at Watson and said, “You bet it is.”

Both men knew that they were actors in a contest of historic magnitude, a tussle so compelling that it would become known as “The Duel in the Sun.” Nicklaus, 37, was the game’s acknowledged master, a winner of 14 major championships. Watson, a decade younger, was the reigning Masters champ. “In the years ahead,” Herbert Warren Wind would write, “all that will probably be remember is the fantastic duel between Nicklaus and Watson, who were paired on both the third and the fourth day and threw some altogether stupendous golf at each other — neither of them ever taking a backward step — right down to the seventy-second green.”

The final-round heroics were set up on Saturday, when both Nicklaus and Watson shot 65 to share the third-round lead, three strokes ahead of Ben Crenshaw. That gave the sunburned Scots in the gallery what they wanted: a reprise of the patient, methodical Nicklaus versus the fast-swinging, scrambling Watson. Nicklaus, of course, was favored by the bookmakers and spectators alike, his persona having shifted over the years from “Fat Jack” (despised usurper of Arnold Palmer’s throne) to “Golden Bear” (smiling blonde statesman of golf).

Nicklaus struck first on Sunday, birdieing the second hole while Watson made bogey. Another birdie on the fourth gave Nicklaus a three-stroke lead, but Watson parried with a birdie of his own on No. 5 and then caught the Bear on No. 8 with a birdie putt that left a dent in the back of the cup. “That was a lucky putt,” Watson would later admit. “If it wasn’t dead center, it would have gone six or seven feet by the hole.”

The back-and-forth took them out to the Turnberry lighthouse and the picturesque ocean holes — at which point the following gallery, thousands strong, succumbed to the excitement. Fans broke through the ropes on the ninth fairway and sprinted past the players; humanity spilled from the choke point like water from a hose. “It was a stampede,” said Nicklaus’s caddie, Angelo Argea. “I thought for sure Jack was going to get trampled.”

It took fifteen minutes for stewards to clear the fairway, during which time Nicklaus sat on his golf bag and Watson stood nearby. The delay blunted Watson’s charge; he bogeyed the hole and made the turn in 34, a stroke behind. Thirty minutes later, Nicklaus sank a 22-footer for birdie at twelve to lead again by two. But Watson promptly responded “back at ya'” with a 12-foot birdie on thirteen. “Watson just would not go away,” wrote Dan Jenkins in SI, “not in the face of Nicklaus’s birdies, or his icy stare or his mighty reputation.”

Not even Watson, however, could have anticipated his tying stroke: a 60-foot putt from off the fifteenth green that hopped in the air, raced across the grass, smacked the flagstick and dropped for a birdie 2. The crowd, suspending disbelief, roared its approval.

So you can understand why Watson, on the sixteenth tee, took in the russet dunescape, the columns of spectators, the golden clouds of dust, and concluded that he and his formidable opponent were the most fortunate of men. “I had always wanted to compete against the best, and here I was doing it,” he would recall years later. “And not doing too badly.”

Watson seized the ultimate margin of victory on the par-5 seventeenth, where he got home in two with a 3-iron and two-putted for birdie. Nicklaus, meanwhile, shocked himself and the world by missing a three-footer and settling for par.

It was the 72nd hole, however, that sent the fans home on an Ayrshire high. Watson’s 1-iron split the fairway of the par-4 finishing hole, forcing Nicklaus to take a more aggressive line over the left fairway bunkers with his driver. But Nicklaus blocked his tee shot way right, the ball bounding into deep rough and up against a gorse bush.

Watson, playing first, struck a 7-iron so purely that the spirits of Old Tom and Young Tom Morris seemed to be acting as escorts; the ball stopped two feet from the hole, to a deafening cheer. That shot seemed to have decided the tournament, but Nicklaus, despite his bad lie and a gorse branch that interfered with his takeaway, took a roundhouse swing with an 8-iron and plowed a furrow out of the rough. His ball shot out of the tangle and soared, stopping finally on the right front edge of the green, 35 feet from the hole.

Were they done? No. Nicklaus proceeded to hole his birdie putt, touching off a near-riot in the grandstands. “As I lined up my putt,” Watson remembered, “the crowd was still going wild. Then Jack put his hands up to quiet the crowd.” But they were quiet only for the time it took Watson to take a couple of brisk practice strokes and roll his ball squarely into the cup for the win. The crowd was still cheering when Nicklaus, in a memorable act of sportsmanship, threw his arm around the champion’s shoulder and walked him toward the scorer’s tent.

“Better than any golf — ever.” That’s how Jenkins summed it up for SI. But in a rare reversal of roles, it would be the champion’s words, and not the writer’s, that we remember:

This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?