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

July 11, 2013

For as much time as they spent together on the golf course, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino couldn't have been more different. Nicklaus was the son of a pharmacist, Charlie, who rolled his ankle playing volleyball and took a golf membership at Ohio's Scioto Country Club, thus setting in motion the most prolific career in golf history. Trevino never knew his father, grew up in a dirt-floor shack next to a course, and learned the game as a caddie before joining the Marines.

If there was a pro Trevino could relate to, it was Orville Moody, who was the last of 10 children and grew up poor in Chickasha, Okla. The soft-spoken Moody had played in the Army before joining the Tour, where he became known for his numbingly consistent driving and for winning the 1969 U.S. Open. It was Moody whose counsel Trevino sought before the 1972 British Open.

"I need a place to get away and work," Trevino recalls telling Moody. "Somewhere I won't be bothered." He wanted to disappear inside the workings of his game, to hit the reset button. Trevino had played so much golf in 1972 that he'd contracted bronchial pneumonia and barely made it to the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he'd played his way into the final pairing with Nicklaus but shot 78 to lose to Nicklaus by three. That equaled the Golden Bear's winning margin at the Masters, and now, heading to Muirfield, his favorite course abroad, Jack had the Grand Slam squarely in his sights.

"I've got a place," Moody said. The muni in his hometown of Killeen, Texas — originally called Killeen Municipal Golf Course, it is now Stonetree Golf Club — wasn't open yet, and with Moody's help, Trevino made camp there, moving his family into a house on the course. He didn't tell anyone; he wanted total seclusion, total immersion, and he got it. Leading up to the U.S. Open, Trevino had been typically chirpy. "I think Nicklaus is going to be stale," he'd said. But two weeks before the British, Trevino went silent. Almost no one knew where he was.

Few rivalries equaled Nicklaus–Trevino, partly because so few of Nicklaus's would-be rivals ever beat him. Trevino, though, was different. He knew he could win, because he already had. With his hard-won grit and guile, he'd rendered Nicklaus the runner-up at the 1968 U.S. Open at Oak Hill and the 1971 U.S. Open at Merion.

Trevino planned to spend British Open week hosting about 10 friends from El Paso for golf, croquet, gin-rummy and general merriment at Yester House, an early 18th-century castle he'd rented in the nearby village of Gifford. But before the fun-loving Mex could hold court in his castle, he needed to whip himself into shape. He'd lost some stamina and muscle during his illness, so part of his training would have to be physical just to survive the trip, if not successfully defend his Open title.

Trevino was also restless. He wanted to run.

Camp Killeen opened at first light. The superintendent's daughter drove Trevino's cart, and although she was deaf, she could read lips, and they worked out a routine. Trevino would hit his shot, hand her the club, and sprint to the ball, where she would be waiting with his clubs. Run. Point. Shoot. Repeat. "She could understand me," Trevino says. "She became a friend of the family, a friend of the kids — beautiful girl. I'd break into a dead run between shots. I wouldn't jog. I'd run. That's where I got my exercise."

Trevino always played fast. Fed up with slow play, he would withdraw from the Sahara Invitational later that year, for which he would be fined $850. Those mornings in Killeen, he went from taking little time over the ball to none.

"I had a theory about Lee," says Al Geiberger, the first golfer to shoot 59 on the PGA Tour, in 1977. The theory, Geiberger says, draws on the book Golf's Best Kept Secret, by Carey G. Mumford. "The book talks about the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind knows how to play — and did you ever notice how Lee would talk while hitting the ball? That was him keeping his conscious mind occupied while he hit the shot. I believe it works."

"He often hit shots when he was talking," says Tony Jacklin, who would become as much a part of the 1972 Open as Nicklaus and Trevino. "Like, 'If I can birdie this hole, I'll bust him,' and he would be on the tee, swinging."

The method to Trevino's mad pace of play: unconscious competence. If he stepped up and hit the ball quickly enough, he couldn't overthink the shot.

The son of a truck driver, Jacklin grew up admiring Ben Hogan, among other greats, as he knocked around the family's modest home in Scunthorpe, England. "You've got two arms, two legs and a head on your shoulders," Jacklin's father said, "just like them." Digging it out of the dirt, young Tony broke through at Lytham in 1969 to become the first Brit to win the British Open since Max Faulkner in 1951. Jacklin would win the 1970 U.S. Open, too. Sure enough, he climbed into contention at Muirfield, shooting opening rounds of 69-72-67, just a shot off Trevino's pace.

As expected, Nicklaus drew most of the headlines, gunning for the third leg of the calendar Grand Slam. What's more, Muirfield had been good to him. It was where, at 19, he'd played in Britain for the first time in the 1959 Walker Cup, and where he'd won his first Claret Jug, at the 1966 Open. The stars were aligned for the Bear.

Alas, the betting favorite for the 1972 Open woke up with a stiff neck early in the week. He was wild off the tee and shot 70-72-71 to fall six shots behind Trevino (71-70-66). Again, the pair were a study in contrasts. While Nicklaus made sure he got plenty of sleep, the Merry Mex was living up to his nickname, having such fun with his friends at Yester House that he never turned in before midnight. Still, he found time to continue his point-and-shoot practicing. According to Dave Anderson of the New York Times, Trevino hit about 500 practice shots each day at Muirfield. "I hit 'em fast," Trevino said. "I don't even look where they go."

The weather for the last round was near-perfect. "Whichever one of us wins," Trevino told Jacklin, just one off the lead, before they teed off, "he's going to go down as the one who stopped Jack from winning the Grand Slam."

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."