- The Washington Times - Monday, July 13, 2009

TURNBERRY, Scotland

Though more than three decades have passed since Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson swapped shots in the 1977 British Open at Turnberry, their “Duel in the Sun” still stands as golf’s quintessential showdown.

When the game’s elite return to the breathtaking links on the southwest coast of Scotland for this week’s 138th Open Championship, they are likely to feel history under every footfall.

Perhaps they will notice the castle ruins beside the ninth hole, the remnants of an English stronghold destroyed by Robert the Bruce and his men in 1307. They will pass a monument at the 12th hole memorializing those who died in the first and second World Wars, when the firm linksland fairways were converted into an Royal Air Force training facility. A close inspection might even reveal a piece or two of stray concrete remaining from the airfield that covered the fairways in World War II.

For ardent golf fans, however, Turnberry always will be the site of a more good-natured conflict, a 36-hole epic befitting arguably the most picturesque setting in major championship golf.

“Between the grand hotel looming over the links and the lighthouse and Ailsa Craig, it’s magic,” said Ben Crenshaw, who finished a distant fourth in the 1977 Open. “It’s a powerful stage.”

And in that first of three Opens contested on the then 6,875-yard, par-70 layout, the protagonists trumped even that surreal backdrop.

At 37, Nicklaus arrived at Turnberry as golf’s unquestioned major monarch. The chunky usurper who had deposed Arnold Palmer in the 1960s had been replaced by the brawny Golden Bear, the blonde-maned titan 14 Slam titles into his march toward 18.

Ten years younger than the game’s resident leviathan, Watson had two major titles to his credit (1975 British and 1977 Masters) and was attempting to distinguish himself as the primary rival to Nicklaus’ throne among a stellar cast of challengers that included Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Ray Floyd, Hale Irwin, Tom Weiskopf and aging stars Palmer and Gary Player. Watson had bested Nicklaus at the Masters earlier that year, but the victory wasn’t head-to-head and required further validation.

“My goal was to beat the best, and the best was Jack,” Watson said recently. “And it was also Lee at the time, too, and Johnny Miller. Those were the players that I aspired to conquer, if you will. But Jack was the No. 1 guy. I put myself in position to win, and I won a few times with him. He won a lot more times than I have, but I got my licks in.”

In the weeks leading up to the event, a heat wave left the rough wispy. And when a forecast called for virtually no wind and temperatures in the 80s, a young Greg Norman suggested the pros would “slaughter” the Ailsa Course. As it turned out, only two players took apart Turnberry.

“I don’t think there is an explanation except that maybe we were just playing that much better than the rest of the field,” said Watson, who matched Nicklaus in the opening two rounds (68-70) before the marquee pairing sprinted away from their nearest challenger (Hubert Green) by 10 strokes in the glorious closing 36 holes.

There have been recent instances when one player, namely Tiger Woods, has bolted to a double-digit lead at a major (1997 Masters, 2000 U.S. Open). But before or since, it hasn’t happened that two players, much less the world’s two best players, managed such a disappearing act at a major.

“I won the golf tournament,” a joking Green said after finishing 10 shots behind Nicklaus and 11 behind Watson. “I don’t know what game those other two guys were playing.”

The scores Nicklaus and Watson produced in each other’s company in the final 36 holes are unlike anything seen at a major from Tiger and Phil Mickelson - or anyone else for that matter. Both carded 65s on Friday (the Open was then contested from Wednesday to Saturday), and the largest and most unruly gallery in Open history greeted them on the first tee for the final round.

While the sunburned and even shirtless masses roiled around them, breaking through the ropes at No. 9 and causing Nicklaus to halt play until stewards restored order, the Golden Bear surged ahead by two strokes through 12 holes. But Watson squared the duel at 10 under a with 12-foot birdie putt at the 13th and a 60-footer from off the green at the par-3 15th that Nicklaus’ caddie, Angelo Argea, called an “arrow through the heart” in Michael Corcoran’s 2002 book on the showdown titled “Duel in the Sun.”

On the 16th tee, Watson grinned at Nicklaus and said: “This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?”

Nicklaus instantly replied: “You bet it is.”

Watson reached the par-5 17th in two shots, posting a two-putt birdie and taking his first lead of the tournament when Nicklaus missed from five feet. Knowing he needed to force the action at the 18th, Nicklaus selected a driver after Watson found the fairway with a 1-iron. Nicklaus blocked his drive well right, and his ball came to rest in the thickest rough on the course, nearly up against a gorse bush. Watson played first, striping a brilliant 7-iron from 178 yards to two feet.

Needing a miracle, Nicklaus responded from 160 yards, muscling an 8-iron to the front of the green.

“I’ll never forget what happened after that shot,” Nicklaus said. “I’m trying to see the ball land, which I couldn’t, but I hear this tinkling sound. I look down, and people from the gallery are dropping coins into my divot for good luck.”

It must have worked. Nicklaus jarred his 35-foot birdie bomb for a 66 and an 11-under total, adding untold psychological length to Watson’s putt. But Watson never hesitated, popping in the tiddler for a closing 65 and a one-shot victory. While the gallery roared its approval, perhaps understanding it had just seen a changing of the guard in major golf, Nicklaus put the perfect finishing touch on the most memorable major duel in history.

“Jack was the most gracious competitor I’ve ever seen in the throes of defeat,” Watson said. “I’ve never seen somebody be able to take defeat and give credit to the player, even though he’s hurting inside, give credit to the player who beat him. And he did that when we walked off the 18th green and he put his arm around me - and he about broke my neck, he squeezed me so hard.

“He said, ‘Tom, I gave it my best shot, but it wasn’t good enough. Congratulations.’ ”

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