TURNBERRY, Scotland (Reuters) - Next week’s British Open, the first to be held on the spectacular Ailsa Course at Turnberry since 1994, will evoke vivid memories of arguably the greatest finish to any major championship.
Thirty-two years ago Tom Watson prevailed over Jack Nicklaus by one stroke after 36 holes of magnificent shot-making and counter thrust in an epic head-to-head later dubbed the ‘Duel in the Sun’.
It was a dream contest between ‘Golden Bear’ Nicklaus, then widely regarded as the greatest player of all time, and the tousle-haired Watson, one of the best practitioners of links-course golf to grace the game.
The script for the final round of the 1977 British Open was made even more perfect by the conditions: light rough and very little wind at the coastal venue on a glorious day of summer sunshine.
Britain’s Peter Alliss, a winner of 21 tournaments who is perhaps best known as a television commentator, reviewed that year’s championship in glowing terms in his book ‘The Open’.
Alliss wrote: ”Perhaps no championship before or since has equaled this one in the appeal of having the two great players in world golf, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, in a head-to-head duel that lasted through two whole days.
”Both played superbly, seeming to raise each other’s games to fresh heights, with blow and counter blow all the way.
“In simple terms what made this Open spectacular was the long, old-fashioned duel between the greatest player of modern times and the man destined to succeed him.”
Watson, who will turn 60 in September, reflected on the 1977 ‘Duel in the Sun’ earlier this month.
”I was at the top of my game, hitting basically on all cylinders,“ the eight-times major winner told reporters. ”That was one of the few times in my career I really felt I had a great chance of winning the tournament going into it.
”Playing against the best in Jack and coming out on top was what I was out there to do, to beat the best and try to establish myself as one of the best players in the game.
“I don’t go into rating golf courses ... or rating tournament victories but it certainly was one of the top competitive times I’ve had in my career,” Watson added.
The two Americans were deadlocked at two-under-par 138 after the first two rounds at Turnberry and forged three ahead of the field after carding matching 65s on the third day.
Although Nicklaus briefly led by three strokes early in the final round, Watson leveled with birdies at the fifth, seventh and eighth.
Watson then bogeyed the ninth and trailed by two after Nicklaus drained a 25-foot birdie putt at the 12th.
Once again Watson fought back and dramatically joined Nicklaus in a tie for the lead by rolling in a 60-foot birdie putt from a bare lie to the left of the 15th green.
They each parred the 16th before Watson edged ahead at the par-five 17th where he struck a perfect tee shot before hitting a three-iron to 25 feet and coolly two-putting for birdie.
Nicklaus, just short of the green in two, chipped up to five feet but narrowly missed his birdie attempt to slip one behind for the first time.
With the championship on the line, Nicklaus took out his driver on the 18th tee but sliced his shot into the right rough perilously close to thick gorse.
Watson had safely struck a one-iron down the fairway followed by a spectacular seven-iron to within three feet of the cup.
Remarkably Nicklaus managed to reach the front of the green with his second shot and in champion style coaxed in a 40-foot putt for an unlikely birdie three and a closing 66.
Watson’s short putt for victory suddenly seemed a little longer but he made no mistake to cap a final-round 65 and a 12-under aggregate of 268.
In a duel for the ages, the two Americans had spreadeagled the field with compatriot Hubert Green next best in third, a distant 11 strokes behind the triumphant Watson.
Editing by Tony Jimenez. To query or comment on this story email email@example.com