Next week the Open Championship will take place at Royal Birkdale, the same venue that hosted the 1969 Ryder Cup, which is renowned for the Concession. On the final green of the final day Jack Nicklaus conceded Tony Jacklin’s two-foot putt, leading to the first tie in the Ryder Cup, and the two have been milking that act ever since. They collaborated on only one course design project, named the Concession, and Jack’s website refers to the gesture, in typical Nicklaus understatement, as “the greatest moment of sportsmanship in golf.”
O.K., giving a two-footer to one of the best putters in the game was a decent thing to do, but to call it the greatest act of sportsmanship is a stretch. The Ryder Cup wasn’t much of an event at the time, and as Nicklaus acknowledged immediately after shaking Jacklin’s hand, “I felt like he would have made it anyway.”
To find the greatest act of sportsmanship in golf, you have to go back to 1926 and one of the best amateur players not named Bobby Jones who ever lived — Jess Sweetser, a track star at Yale who won the NCAA individual men’s collegiate golf championship two years after taking up the game. He arrived at Muirfield for the British Amateur having won the U.S. Amateur in 1922 (handing Jones the worst thumping of his career, an 8-and-7 semifinal loss) and hoping to become the first native-born American to win both of the game’s major amateur titles.
He was also sick. Sweetser thought he had a bad cold, maybe the flu. The diagnosis of tuberculosis wouldn’t come until the voyage home. But when Sweetser went to the 1st tee, he was barely able to walk and was coughing uncontrollably.
Then Sweetser caught the break of a lifetime. A.F. Simpson, the other finalist, missed his tee time. Simpson’s car had broken down outside North Berwick, and even though he was scrambling to get to the tee, rules were rules, and the committeeman in charge informed Sweetser that Simpson would have to forfeit.
Sweetser would have none of it. Not only did he refuse to accept the ruling, he also ran into the Muirfield clubhouse and locked himself in the men’s room. “I knew they wouldn’t let the title go unclaimed,” he said, “so I waited them out.”
An hour later Simpson arrived on a bicycle, his clubs tied to his back like tent poles on a climber. The match proceeded, and the very ill Sweetser won 6 and 5.
Unlike Nicklaus and Jacklin, Sweetser rarely discussed what he had done for Simpson. “It was a long way to travel to have something like car trouble determine the outcome,” he would tell a few friends.
Upon his return to America, Sweetser spent time in and out of hospitals and sanatoriums. He eventually became a stockbroker and retired as vice president at Martin Marietta, now Lockheed Martin. He also served on the editorial board of The American Golfer. Sweetser died in Washington, D.C., in 1989 at age 87.
Conceding a putt is great, but if we’re talking about the greatest act of sportsmanship in the history of golf, we should never forget the man who locked himself in the men’s room until his opponent could arrive.