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Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus
In the immediate aftermath of Tom Watson's victory, Jack Nicklaus told him that his best shot just wasn't good enough. (Getty Images)

'Duel in the Sun' remains one of game's great shootouts

More than three decades after Tom Watson edged Jack Nicklaus in the 1977 Open at Turnberry, the two titans still have vivid memories of that epic battle. Even now, Watson calls his unforgettable one-shot victory over the Golden Bear on a rare sun-splashed weekend in Scotland one of the great competitive highlights of his career.

By Craig Dolch, PGATOUR.COM Contributor

Normally, Jack Nicklaus can recite the yardage he hit a 2-iron in a practice round he played in 1958.  He remembers the game as well as he played it.

But when you start pumping him for information about a certain Open Championship he played in at Turnberry in 1977, Nicklaus suddenly develops amnesia.

More like selective memory.

“They were asking us some questions about Turnberry earlier this year at the Senior Skins Game,” Tom Watson said. “They asked Jack a question about what happened on the 14th hole, and he says, ‘I don't have a clue. I don't remember.’ ”

“Hey, what happened on 16?” Nicklaus was asked.

“I don't know.”

Finally, Watson flashes his gap-tooth smile and says, “Jack, let me fill you in.”

Watson can remember every detail and, truth be told, so can Nicklaus. It’s just that Watson has far better memories of what has come to be known as “the Duel in the Sun,” where he won one of the most glorious battles in major championship history. On a seldom-seen, sun-drenched weekend at the Open, the two stars covered the leader board with red numbers.

Nicklaus and Watson matched scores (68, 70 and 65) and talent for three rounds, setting up a final-round showdown. (Ben Crenshaw the only other player within three shots, and he faded with a final-round 75.) Watson and Nicklaus separated themselves from the rest of the field by a double-digit advantage as they played the back nine.

Hubert Green, who finished 11 shots back in third place, put it best when he said, “I don’t know who won this tournament, but I won the first flight.”

Nicklaus, 37 at the time, was in his prime, having already won 14 majors. Watson was 10 years younger, but the reigning Masters champion had already won the first of what would be five Open titles. He already had erased a legacy of being unable to close out tournaments earlier in his career.

But Nicklaus wasn’t used to losing majors when he was in contention, especially when he was playing this well. How many players have held a share of the lead entering the final round of a major, shot 66 and not won?

That’s precisely what happened to Nicklaus because Watson shot a 65, thanks to birdies on the last two holes, to win the Claret Jug. For his part, Nicklaus views the week in basic terms.

“People asked me the other day, “Jack, now go back to 1977. What do you think about when you think of it?’” Nicklaus says. “I think about that I lost. End of conversation.”

But this was one of those rare times when neither player felt like a loser afterward. They didn’t need the passing of time to give them perspective on what was happening.

Sitting on the 16th tee tied for the lead, Watson turned to Nicklaus and said, “This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?”

Nicklaus smiled back. “You bet it is.”

The opening 68s left Watson and Nicklaus tied for third place, behind John Schroeder (66) and Martin Foster (67). The second-round 70s left them a shot behind Roger Maltbie. By the time Watson and Nicklaus signed for 65s on Saturday, they knew there would be little need for scoreboard watching in the final round.

“It was obvious it was going to be a match-play event the last 18,” Nicklaus said. “And that’s what it was.”

Nicklaus sprinted to a three-shot lead after four holes, only to see Watson pull even by the eighth hole. That’s when the sun-burned Scots couldn’t contain their excitement any longer. While they were in the ninth fairway, play was held up for almost 20 minutes after the stewards lost control of the fans.

“The crowd was going just everywhere,” Nicklaus said. “The ropes meant nothing, we meant nothing. They were just running down the fairways on every hole. And we let it go for a while because it was basically a match-play event with everybody watching us. Finally we said, ‘Hey guys, we’ve got to have a little control.’ So we stopped. They controlled it and we went on.”

Again, Nicklaus forged ahead, this time by two shots. Yet Watson came right back and they were still tied going to the par-5 17th hole. Watson reached the green in two and easily made birdie. Nicklaus appeared ready to match it, but inexplicably missed a 3-foot putt.

With a one-shot lead, Watson split the 18th fairway with a 2-iron. Needing to play aggressively, Nicklaus used a driver, but his tee shot ended under a gorse bush. Watson seemed to clinch the victory when he hit a 7-iron to 2 feet.

But Nicklaus wasn’t finished. He manufactured a swing with an 8-iron that caught the front of the green, 35 feet away. Somehow, someway, he rolled in the bomb to pull even with Watson, whose 2-footer was no longer a tap-in. But Watson, who said he expected Nicklaus to make his putt, quickly drained his knee-knocker to end an incredible weekend of golf.

“I don't go into rating golf courses or rating wins for that matter, but it certainly was one of the top competitive times I've had in my career,” Watson said. “I can just say that playing against the best in Jack and coming out on top was what I was out there to do.”

When it was over, Nicklaus didn’t pull a LeBron James. He put his arm around Watson’s shoulder -- “he squeezed me so hard he nearly broke my neck,” Watson says -- and the two men chatted as they walked to the scorer’s tent.

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

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