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Tom Watson reflects on epic 'Duel in the Sun'

by 16/07/2017 20:08:00 0 comments 1 Views
  • Tom Watson's 1977 Open victory at Turnberry is best remembered because of the titanic 'Duel in the Sun' with Jack Nicklaus on the final day
  • Watson says 'It was like a prize fight... he (Nicklaus) got the first punch in, I got the second one in, he got the third one in, I got the fourth one in'
  • But Watson believes Henrik Stenson's battle with Phil Mickelson on the way to winning the Claret Jug in 2016 eclipses his tussle with Nicklaus 40 years ago

By Chris Cutmore for the Daily Mail

Published: 17:33 EDT, 16 July 2017 | Updated: 20:08 EDT, 16 July 2017

It would take a brave man to question Tom Watson's judgment. This is one of sport's true gentlemen and his Popeye forearms still look like they could crush golf balls.

So what to make of Watson's assertion that his win for the ages over Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry, now 40 long summers ago, has finally been surpassed by Henrik Stenson's incredible battle with Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon last year?

'I'm often asked about it, just as Stenson and Mickelson will be asked about their epic event - it was better than ours, that's for sure,' says Watson.

Tom Watson believes his 'Duel in the Sun' in 1977 was surpassed by Henrik Stenson's 2016 win
Tom Watson believes his 'Duel in the Sun' in 1977 was surpassed by Henrik Stenson's 2016 win

Tom Watson believes his 'Duel in the Sun' in 1977 was surpassed by Henrik Stenson's 2016 win

Watson claimed victory in '77 by defeating Jack Nicklaus in a gripping final round shoot-out
Watson claimed victory in '77 by defeating Jack Nicklaus in a gripping final round shoot-out

Watson claimed victory in '77 by defeating Jack Nicklaus in a gripping final round shoot-out

In 2016, Stenson shot a final round 63 for his first major and to fend off Phil Mickelson's charge
In 2016, Stenson shot a final round 63 for his first major and to fend off Phil Mickelson's charge

In 2016, Stenson shot a final round 63 for his first major and to fend off Phil Mickelson's charge

'They were much more under par than us and it was quite a shootout. You have to go by the numbers. Numbers are the reality in our business.'

All golfers love to be right on the numbers, and Watson is. Mickelson's final-round 65 was still not enough to match Stenson's eight-under-par 63, which tied the major-championship record for a low round, and his 20-under score of 264 set a new major record. At Turnberry, Watson shot a five-under-par round of 65 to Nicklaus's 66, and he won by a shot on 12 under.

Only, that's not all there is to it.

Yes, Stenson won The Open with the most staggering scoring. But he did not win The Open where the greatest player of all time was taken down by the young buck who became the greatest links golfer of them all, with the final putt of the championship; he did not win The Open where the fairways at Britain's most beautiful links were scorched brown and the crowds were so in thrall that they threatened to run riot; he did not win The Open that is still revered as the single greatest major in golfing history.

Watson did. He won the Duel in the Sun.

Four decades after that hot July Saturday, Watson is gazing out on a rather gloomier morning from a quiet room in Royal Birkdale's iconic white art-deco clubhouse. In 1983 he hit a 2-iron into the 18th green in front of him now – 'probably the best long iron I've ever hit when I had to hit it' – to set up his fifth and final Open Championship victory and the last of his eight majors.

But nobody usually asks him about that shot. What they want to talk about is the big one. The day he took Jack down. Forty years feels like quite an anniversary, not that he's about to get too sentimental about it. 'Ah, it's just a number,' he insists. Perhaps some numbers are just more important than others.

First he'd rather dwell on his awe at meeting the great Bobby Locke, a four-time Open champion, here after missing the cut as defending champion in 1976. 'There he was, still playing in his plus-twos, tweed jacket, bunnet cap. I went up to him, Old Muffin Face as they used to call him, and introduced myself. The course was burnt down, really dry and hot. Somebody's cigarette caused a fire so they sent a fire truck - it broke an axle getting out of there.'

Watson won The Open five times  and 1977 was the second time he earned the Claret Jug
Watson won The Open five times  and 1977 was the second time he earned the Claret Jug

Watson won The Open five times and 1977 was the second time he earned the Claret Jug

Watson recalls 77 perfectly and lists the score he and Nicklaus shot at each hole on the last day
Watson recalls 77 perfectly and lists the score he and Nicklaus shot at each hole on the last day

Watson recalls 77 perfectly and lists the score he and Nicklaus shot at each hole on the last day

Watson admits that before the tournament he was unsure whether could match Nicklaus 
Watson admits that before the tournament he was unsure whether could match Nicklaus 

Watson admits that before the tournament he was unsure whether could match Nicklaus 

Now Watson is the elder statesman everyone wants to meet. At 67, he shows little sign of slowing down. The craggy lines on the back of his neck and deep tan speak of a lifetime spent outdoors and although at 5ft 9in he is noticeably small in comparison with the big beasts of the modern, power-hitting game, he still competes on the senior tour.

Watson has arrived here on the Lancashire coast in his role as a Testimonee for Rolex, the official timekeeper of The Open who are celebrating 50 years in golf. He's on a whirlwind trip from home in Kansas via a couple of days in Tokyo and has slept just five hours overnight. But there's still a gleam in those piercing blue eyes. 'I'm actually in pretty good shape,' he smiles.

His memory isn't doing too badly either. Now that we're down to it, Watson recalls the score both he and Nicklaus made on every hole and the exact state of the leaderboard at each point during their famous duel.

It was set up by both shooting 65s in the third round to leave them three shots clear of Ben Crenshaw in third place. Nicklaus, then 37, had won 14 of his 18 majors by that point; Watson, 10 years younger, had captured the Claret Jug at Carnoustie in 1975 and then his first Masters earlier that year – by holding off Nicklaus down the stretch.

But going into the tournament, Watson still did not know whether he could go toe-to-toe with Nicklaus and win, despite his two majors.

'I'd beaten Jack in the Masters that year but after winning at Turnberry I really had the belief in myself that I could play the game against the best players in the world,' he says.

'It was all a maturation process up to that point in time. I started in the Fall of '71, that was the summer of 77, so it took nearly six years. When I first started I never knew if I was going to make a birdie on the professional tour or make a cut. I didn't have a clue. I just knew that I was going to work harder than anybody in practising my game to try to develop my skills to be the best player I possibly could be.

'It was just a dream to be able to compete with these players. As time wore on in those six years I had the chance to play with Arnie and Jack, Gary Player and Lee Trevino, the stars of the game, and honed my skills, learned to play under pressure. That year kinda solidified that, yeah, I could get it done when I really had to get it done and hit the quality shots that I had to hit under pressure.'

Nicklaus (right) began the final day in blistering form and quickly carved out a two-shot lead
Nicklaus (right) began the final day in blistering form and quickly carved out a two-shot lead

Nicklaus (right) began the final day in blistering form and quickly carved out a two-shot lead

Nicklaus held a lead throughout the day before a birdie on 15 hauled Watson level 
Nicklaus held a lead throughout the day before a birdie on 15 hauled Watson level 

Nicklaus held a lead throughout the day before a birdie on 15 hauled Watson level 

Watson says that day against Nicklaus was 'like a prize fight... he got the first punch in'
Watson says that day against Nicklaus was 'like a prize fight... he got the first punch in'

Watson says that day against Nicklaus was 'like a prize fight... he got the first punch in'

And what pressure. Nicklaus raced out of the blocks to build a two-shot lead over Watson after just three holes. Then, despite Watson hitting one of his best shots of the day into the par-3 4th green – 'a cut 4-iron, just a beautiful shot into the wind to about eight feet' – Nicklaus holed a 15-foot putt to extend his lead further, and watched Watson miss.

But Watson struck back, holing a 15-footer of his own for birdie on the 5th and then another from 20-feet on the 8th which smacked into the back of the cup. A bogey on the 9th put him one behind again after Nicklaus's front-nine 33.

On the 12th, Nicklaus drained another birdie putt, this time from 22 feet, to lead by two before Watson struck a blow back on the very next hole. Then, on the 15th, with Watson in some trouble after missing the green, he struck the shot of the day. His 60-foot putt bounded onto the green, ran and ran, and dropped for a birdie two. They were level with three holes to play.

'It was like a prize fight,' exclaims Watson, and he puts his dukes up to relive the brawl. 'He got the first punch in, I got the second one in, he got the third one in, I got the fourth one in.'

But does a golfer feel those birdies like a blow in a fight?

'Yeah, sure you do. The only thing it does is steels your resolve to continue to fight. You're not down and out. If you're down and out and you throw in the towel then you're not much of a player.'

They also had to contend with the increasingly alarming scenes forming among the clouds of dust alongside the fairways. This was the only place to be at Turnberry, the two best players in the world at the peak of their powers, going at it as if their lives depended on it, and they flocked to watch in their thousands. After each shot a huge surge of people rushed ahead to get in position for the next mini drama.

At the 9th hole the course reaches its signature stretch – at least before Donald Trump got his hands on it - alongside black cliffs, the looming rock of Ailsa Craig and the famous lighthouse. But here the bottleneck could not stem the tide any longer and there was a surge through the ropes. Nicklaus's caddie, Angelo Argea, described it is 'a stampede' and said 'I thought for sure Jack was going to get trampled'.

'The crowd was out of control,' Watson admits. 'Jack said 'Tom, we have to do something about the crowd.' We couldn't play, because the crowd was continuing to go in front of us, to get ready to try to watch us. He went to the steward and said 'you need to make an announcement to the crowd to please try to be understanding that the players still have to play.'

Watson and Nicklaus produced such an enthralling battle that the crowds were 'out of control'
Watson and Nicklaus produced such an enthralling battle that the crowds were 'out of control'

Watson and Nicklaus produced such an enthralling battle that the crowds were 'out of control'

The pair had to wait 15 minutes for the crowd to clear the fairway on the ninth
The pair had to wait 15 minutes for the crowd to clear the fairway on the ninth

The pair had to wait 15 minutes for the crowd to clear the fairway on the ninth

Watson said to Nicklaus on the 16th tee: 'This is what it's all about, isn't it?'
Watson said to Nicklaus on the 16th tee: 'This is what it's all about, isn't it?'

Watson said to Nicklaus on the 16th tee: 'This is what it's all about, isn't it?'

Not that it did much good. There was a 15-minute delay to clear the fairway as the players watched helplessly. The crowd continued to charge and roar after each shot – they knew they were watching history in the making. Watson and Nicklaus did too.

Somehow, in the eye of the storm, Watson found a moment of calm on the 16th tee to acknowledge his rival. 'This is what it's all about, isn't it?' he asked Nicklaus. 'You bet it is,' came the response. Then the fight continued.

'We came down sparring on the last few holes and he made a mistake,' continues Watson. 'He slipped at 17 missing the short putt.' That tiddler was for birdie and the miss handed the lead to Watson – who had hit the par-5 green in two and two-putted. It was the first time Watson had edged his nose in front all day.

And so it all came down to the 72nd hole of the tournament. Nicklaus went for a big, statement drive but sprayed it into a gorse bush, yet somehow then put his approach on the green, but still 35 feet away – 'only Jack could do that' – but Watson sent in the killer blow, a 178-yard 7-iron to two feet.

Or was it the killer blow? Watson laughs as he tells the story of how his caddie, Alfie Fyles, tempted fate. He even breaks out an impression of his old friend, who hailed just down the road from Birkdale at Southport, which might well be the worst ever attempt at a scouse accent. Think of Roger Moore playing a butler and you get the gist.

'When I hit that shot really close to the hole and Jack hit it on the green Alfie said 'you've got him now, mister, you've got him now.' I said 'no, no, Alf – he's going to hole this putt.' He kinda looks at me like he's thinking 'what are you talking about?' Of course when he holed the putt I didn't have to look at Alf but I knew what he was thinking. 'Boss was right.'

Above all the other great sights and sounds from that day, there is one memory Watson treasures more than any other.

'When Jack made his putt the crowd erupted into a roar that didn't cease,' he recalls with increasing excitement. 'It continued, and continued, and continued. I wanted to get on with it and make the putt. But it continued. I said 'to hell with this! I'm going to putt even if they're still roaring for Jack!'

'So I put the ball down, picked up my marker and as I was standing up, Jack raised his hands, like this, to silence the crowd.

'Only in golf would this happen: in three seconds that roar went to dead silence. Not 10 seconds – three seconds. It was amazing. You couldn't silence a crowd like that in any other sport with any other thing that you do, nothing. Only in golf. And Jack did it.'

Yet that is not the abiding memory. Nor is the moment he holed that winning putt to land the knockout.

'Coming off the green, that was the moment. Jack said: 'Tom, I gave you my best shot, but it wasn't good enough. Congratulations, I'm very happy for ya.'

Nicklaus told Watson 'I gave you my best shot, but it wasn't good enough. Congratulations.'
Nicklaus told Watson 'I gave you my best shot, but it wasn't good enough. Congratulations.'

Nicklaus told Watson 'I gave you my best shot, but it wasn't good enough. Congratulations.'

 Watson's victory over Nicklaus in 1977 saw the formation of a great friendship
 Watson's victory over Nicklaus in 1977 saw the formation of a great friendship

 Watson's victory over Nicklaus in 1977 saw the formation of a great friendship

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It was in that moment, when the defeated Nicklaus put one arm around the shoulder of his conqueror and shook his hand with the other as they strode off, that a great friendship was born. Watson won his second Open, but also a soulmate. So many stories he tells involve Nicklaus in some way, a reflection of two great sporting lives intertwined but also clear admiration, almost idolatry.

'We developed a very strong friendship over the years. Early on it was a very strong rivalry but there was always respect there. Jack has always had the right words to say in defeat. In victory too but in defeat he was always spot on. He's always given credit to the people who've beaten him. Whether it was his own fault that he lost the tournament, or not. That graciousness is part of what I think is the greatest thing about golf.'

But what did he say back to Nicklaus at that fateful moment? 'Thank you.' What else could I say?'

The truth is that both Watson v Nicklaus and Stenson v Mickelson were so extraordinary that it's likely to take another 40 years before we see another Open quite like either of them. The former finished 10 and 11 shots clear of the player in third place, while that figure was an incredible 14 and 11 last year.

Yet Birkdale is a perfect stage for another classic, and Watson admits he favours a form player to triumph – including a possible fairytale for Tommy Fleetwood in his home town.

The links master has just one tip for any would be champion: 'Main thing is, keep it in the fairway. Drive the ball well, and set up the tournament. If you don't drive the ball well you're going to be struggling the whole time.'

But right now he is paying just as much attention to developing his skills in another sport - the curious world of Cutting horses.

'I don't think anybody in this whole country knows anything about Cutting horses!' he laughs.

For the uninitiated, Cutting is an American equestrian competition where riders try to demonstrate a horse's athleticism and ability to handle cattle. In other words, at the age of 67 Tom Watson is becoming a cowboy.

Watson's advice for emerging victorious at The Open is to keep the ball on the fairway
Watson's advice for emerging victorious at The Open is to keep the ball on the fairway

Watson's advice for emerging victorious at The Open is to keep the ball on the fairway

And Watson believes England's Tommy Fleetwood could be a contender to win this week 
And Watson believes England's Tommy Fleetwood could be a contender to win this week 

And Watson believes England's Tommy Fleetwood could be a contender to win this week 

'My wife got me involved with it,' he explains. 'I'm learning and trying to become a horseman, to compete in the shows. I made the finals in two classes this last week. This is the first time in a big event that I've had any success at all.'

So where did he finish in those finals? 'Pretty close to last,' he laughs, even louder.

Just like with his gracious appraisal of Stenson and Mickelson's feats, Watson is nothing but modest. And he can afford to be. After all, winning this does not matter. Not really. Because he won the Duel in the Sun.

Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus are both Testimonees for Rolex, which has been the Official Timekeeper of The Open since first partnering with The R&A in 1981 

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