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Dermot Gilleece's Blog : On Tony Jacklin

The perfect script for a major championship win

Posted Jun 01, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece

Tony Jacklin

              Time and place combine this summer to revive precious memories of Tony Jacklin's finest exploits in golf.  Forty years ago at Royal Lytham, he became the first Briton since 1951 to capture the Open Championship and 1969 also marked what became known famously as his "Concession Match" with Jack Nicklaus in the Ryder Cup, down the Lancashire coast at Royal Birkdale.

              Then in 1970 came his US Open triumph at Hazeltine to which major golf returns this year with the staging of the US PGA Championship in August.  In fact, when a strong European line-up competes in the US Open at Bethpage Black later this month, they will be attempting to bridge the gap back to Jackiln's achievement 39 years ago.

              Since the Ryder Cup at Birkdale, the biennial event has produced sufficient bitterness, bravado, feigned hatred and immature chatter to start a schoolboys' gang-war.  Which makes Nicklaus's gesture all the more significant while lending a rich dimension to the opening, a few years ago, of a new golf course named "The Concession", located 25 miles from Jacklin's home in Bradendon on Florida's Gulf Coast.

              Co-designed in a joint venture with the Bear, it gives permanent status to the short putt on the final green conceded to Jacklin with the entire outcome in the balance.  Since regarded as one of the game's grandest sporting gestures, it meant their match was halved and the overall result was a tie for the first time in history.
              "How long was the putt?" asked Jacklin rhetorically, when we talked recently. "Jack and I have done a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on this issue and Jack has concluded that it was 20 inches to two feet.  It was certainly no longer than that."

              Rory McIlroy, a leading candidate for next year's team at Celtic Manor, got into hot water recently when endorsing the Tiger Woods view that the Ryder Cup is no more than a highly publicised exhibition.  "I always believed that the challenge for Europe boiled down to the haves against the have-nots, and that Europeans still see themselves as the have-nots," said Jacklin, who was unquestionably Europe's finest skipper.

              "They look upon America as having it all.  You know, the richest, most powerful country in the world, with all of the college system it has going for it.  And the challenge is to knock them off their lofty perch.  During my time as captain, I certainly felt that this worked as a motivational factor.  It was what we talked about in the team-room."

               Looking back on his own playing career, Jacklin considers his Hazeltine triumph, where he won by seven strokes having led from start to finish, to have been the highlight.   But he is mildly surprised that his achievement has not since been matched by another European.

               "To increase your lead over such a high-class field on every day of the US Open and eventually win by seven, had to be very special," he recalled.  "It was the sort of thing that doesn't happen very often in major championships and was obviously a fantastic occasion for me, right from the start.

               "The opening round was played in winds of up to 40mph but I managed to shoot a 71 against an average for the field of 79.1.  Not even the great ones escaped.  Arnold Palmer had a 79; Gary Player shot an 80 and Jack (Nicklaus) shot an 81, the highest score of his US Open career. So, with a two-shot lead over Julius Boros, Mason Rudolph and Chi Chi Rodriguez, it became a matter of playing great golf and keeping my head about me from then on.

               "Going up the 18th for the last time, I knew this was as good as it was ever going to get.  I remember hitting a good drive and then a four-iron second shot to about 20 feet short of the hole.  Next thing I was standing over the putt and thinking 'holing this would be a helluva way to finish.'

               "Then, as I was thinking it, I was doing it.  And the ball dropped.  And it was just a wonderful moment.  I was the first English winner of the title since Ted Ray, back at Inverness in 1920. Ben Wright (the British-born golf writer turned television commentator) was there. In fact I think he was the only reporter from home.  Not many of them travelled in those days."

               In an attempt at explaining the lack of European success since then, he suggested: "When I went to Hazeltine, the US was my circuit.  But there were other elements which became important, like the fact that the weather wasn't particularly good for the first two days.  I just minded my business and got on with what I was doing.  A second round of 70 increased my lead to three strokes over Dave Hill at the half-way stage and I had another 70 to be four strokes clear of Hill with one round to play.  And for good measure, I finished with a 70.

               "There wasn't a single day when I didn't come in further in front than when I went out. Which leads me to think that if you were to write the perfect script for a major championship win, it would be difficult to improve on Hazeltine." 
               Then Jacklin concluded: "Where team golf is concerned, however, nothing will ever threaten the Ryder Cup.  It will always stand alone as the ultimate challenge."  Which probably explains why the propaganda war for Celtic Manor has already started.

-  Dermot Gilleece

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