News & Opinion

Watson-Nicklaus clash in ’77 defined an era

Going to a British Open at Turnberry for the first time, in 1994, when an American could call the championship that without being said to have a golf IQ lower than zero, I took in the usual things: lighthouse, Ailsa Craig, remnants of military airstrips when the property was utilized for a higher purpose during World War II. Foremost, though, on my maiden trip to those Scottish links, I tried to envision the scene there in 1977.  

Now it has been 40 years since the “Duel in the Sun,” and thousands of miles away from that golf holy land, I am thinking about it again. Of the tournaments during my lifetime that I didn’t attend, the epic Tom Watson-Jack Nicklaus Open is the one where I wish I had been on site. (Pre-1959, it would be the 1913 U.S. Open, narrowly, over the 1930 U.S. Amateur.)

We remember events for different reasons, from the personal to the historical. For me, and I suspect many in middle age and beyond, Watson’s one-stroke victory over Nicklaus clicks a lot of boxes. It resonates not only because the last two rounds were as close to golf boxing as possible – heavyweights throwing and taking punches deep into the fight, the highest-quality bout – and the sportsmanship but how that Open evokes recollections of the period.  

Golf was a niche in 1977, with no aspirations of cool. If you got it, you got it. As an obsessed golfer then, I felt about the sport like I did as a North Carolinian about college basketball before hoops morphed into March Madness for all: It was mine, a riddle wrapped in polyester and tied with a white belt (not unlike what Watson wore for the final round at Turnberry, with his bright green shirt and his green-and-orange plaid slacks). 

The equipment that Watson and Nicklaus used in shooting 65-65 and 65-66, respectively, over the final 36 holes on the baked-out Ailsa course – Watson and his wife kept the tub in their hotel room filled with cool water for relief on the hot nights – closely resembled that which had been used for four decades. It would be the type of gear (wound, soft-cover balls, wooden-headed woods, steel shafts) used contentedly for another decade and a half or so, until science was allowed to steamroll craftsmanship, the sporting equivalent of a freeway routed through a neighborhood.

“I hit a driver 250 in the air, and that was about as long as anybody with a persimmon club,” Watson told me once, recalling his prime. “A 1-iron was maybe 215 in the air.” No one thought the game was lacking. 

Those 36 holes on the Ayrshire coast measured most accurately what was on the inside. Watson, 27, and ascending to golf’s throne, versus Nicklaus, 37, and not wanting to give it up. Watson had gotten the better of Nicklaus a couple of months earlier at the Masters. They weren’t in the same pairing on the final day at Augusta National, although the gallery reaction to Watson’s pivotal birdie on the 17th hole had thrown off Nicklaus up ahead on No. 18. “Fear is not the operative word,” Watson recalled of his early challenges to the Golden Bear, “but I felt like I had to play my very best to beat him.”

Still, the mano-a-mano in Scotland was a different test for Watson, and he was primed for it. “Turnberry was different,” Watson told Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford in 1986. “It had an element of Texas summer to it, and I was the same way: very calm inside the boiler, so to speak. I could feel the heat, but only as if it were around me.”

Amid the dust kicked up by thousands of spectators, who caused play to be delayed while breaking through the gallery ropes in a frenzy to witness the history unfolding before them, Watson remained poised and resolute in the final round. He rebounded from a two-stroke swing on the second hole that put him behind and kept the pressure on the man who always kept the pressure on better than anyone else, until Nicklaus missed a 4-footer on No. 17 that would be the difference.

Waiting to play on the 16th tee, coming off a pivotal birdie putt from off the 15th green that pulled him back into a tie, Watson had paused his focus for a moment to say something to Nicklaus. 

“This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?” he said. 

Eight words that summed up the day – and spoke for an era. 

Bill Fields has covered golf since the mid-1980s, with much of his career spent at Golf World magazine as a writer and editor. A native North Carolinian, he lives in Fairfield, Conn. Email: williamhfields@gmail.com; Twitter: @BillFields1