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Dermot Gilleece's Blog: A Bear in Turnberry

The Duel in the Sun - 1977 - Nicklaus and Watson

Posted Jul 15, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece

Tom Watson wins Open 1977 - AP Photo

Turnberry will always be associated in a very special way with the so-called ‘Duel in the Sun’, in which Tom Watson outgunned Jack Nicklaus in a pulsating battle for the 1977 Open Championship.  This was the occasion when Nicklaus sustained probably the biggest disappointment of his illustrious career in that, by his own admission, he played to the best of his ability and it wasn't good enough.

Not much mention is made, however, of another, more recent disappointment for the Bear over the Ailsa Links.  It happened six years ago when Turnberry played host to the Senior British Open Championship.

It was the occasion when Watson gained the distinction of becoming only the second player to win the Open Championship and the Senior British Open on the same course.  And he did it by carding a sensational, final round of 64 to tie with the then senior rookie, Carl Mason, before going on to beat him on the second hole of a sudden-death play-off. 
  
In a way, Mason's defeat was reminiscent of the 1994 Open when Jesper Parnevik bogeyed the last after missing the final green with a wedge to open the door to Nick Price.  In Mason's case, however, his blunder of finding a horrendous lie in a fairway bunker on the last, culminated in a wretched, double-bogey six.  A bogey would have won him the title.

Generally, a player of his calibre gets only one shot at glory.  So it was that with a par on the second extra hole, Watson completed a coveted double while Mason's consolation was a cheque for £105,250 - the largest of his career.

But what of Watson's old adversary?   As a 63-year-old who had undergone hip replacement surgery four years previously, Nicklaus was engaged in an ongoing struggle between his unquenchable competitiveness and ‘anno domini’. 

And Ireland's Des Smyth, himself a highly competitive person, got a rare insight into the Nicklaus psyche after carding a sparkling, third-round 66 in that seniors event at Turnberry.

While winding down from the excitement of the round, the Drogheda man found his attention drawn to the television screen and the sight of Nicklaus standing over a 12-foot putt for a birdie at the 14th.  The game's greatest competitor was on a roll at six under, with the prospect of shooting his age, a magical 63.  But the putt slipped tantalisingly past the target and when Smyth then observed an apparently good tee-shot break right of the green for a bogey at the short 15th, he knew the chance had gone.  So, off he went to meet his wife, Vicki, and son, Gregory, who were with him at the event.

"About an hour and a quarter later, we were driving out of the car-park when I saw Nicklaus walking towards us," he recalled, "and when I lowered the car window to ask how he had finished, he leaned in, said 'hello' to Vicki and then started to talk.  For the next 20 minutes, arms resting against the car, he passionately told me every shot he had hit from the 14th, leading eventually to a disappointing 67.

"He was absolutely gutted, because he knew he had had the makings of a terrific round, with the chance of shooting his age. And as he talked, I couldn't help thinking that here was the greatest golfer the game has ever seen – unless Tiger outstrips him - baring his soul to a fellow pro; devastated that he didn't shoot the number he wanted.  Finally he said 'It would have meant so much to me.'  Then, before leaving us, he added: 'Maybe tomorrow.  Though the worry is that those chances don't come around too often these days.'"

Incidentally, Watson's four-round scores of 66, 67, 66, 64 for an aggregate of 263, contained a weekend 36 holes of 130, just as he had scored in 1977, when his rounds over the four days were 68, 70, 65, 65 for 268.  Memorably, Nicklaus matched him round for round on that occasion except, of course, on the final day when he carded a 66 to Watson's winning 65.

In 2003, however, there was a more substantial gap between their respective scores.   Rather than ending up only one stroke behind his great rival, he carded 70, 67, 67, 71 for an aggregate of 275 which was a full 12 strokes outside him.  And nobody would have known better than Nicklaus, that he was no longer capable of challenging his younger rival. 

Ultimately, he had to settle for a share of 14th place, a stroke behind Smyth who was 13th on his own.  That is why the chance of a third-round 63 was so precious to the Bear.

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