Titans return to Turnberry
Old rivals Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson are back at the site of one of their famous matchups.
By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 24, 2003
Jack Nicklaus' major championship record might one day be challenged by Tiger Woods, who has been stuck on eight Grand Slam titles for more than a year. Imagine, however, how much more difficult the task would be for Woods if there was never a player named Tom Watson.
Nicklaus won 18 professional majors, a number that might easily have climbed into the 20s had the red-haired, gap-toothed, bold-putting Watson not emerged as one of the game's great players.
Watson won eight major championships, with Nicklaus runner-up four times.
One of the most memorable occurred at Turnberry, Scotland, site of this week's Senior British Open, where the old rivals will tee it up again.
Turnberry is the British Open's youngest venue and has been played there three times. But the first will never be forgotten. In 1977, near-tropical weather dried out the greens and burned out the rough, but it was Watson and Nicklaus who were on fire.
They produced one of the most thrilling 36-hole finishes in major-championship history, matching scores of 68, 70 and 65 before a final-round showdown that had Watson, 53, and Nicklaus, 63, reminiscing this week.
Watson was 27 at the time, just starting his run of dominance on the PGA Tour that would see him win the money title four straight years. He had won the '75 Open Championship at Carnoustie in a playoff. Earlier in '77, he had held off Nicklaus to win his first Masters.
"I watched Jack play, I wanted to emulate Jack," Watson said of his early years. "I watched him dissect the golf course.
"I had great respect for Nicklaus but I've always gone out to play the golf course and play shots on the golf course. It's a boring comment, but you let the chips fall where they may. And when you are playing against Nicklaus at Turnberry. ... that was the ultimate because I was playing against the best player in the world and that's where I wanted to be."
The last day of the '77 Open Championship did not start off well for Watson, paired with Nicklaus in the final round for the first time. Through four holes, he was three down. But by the eighth hole, when he rammed in a birdie putt that would have gone well past had it missed, Watson fought back to a tie.
At the 12th hole, however, when Nicklaus made a 20-foot birdie, he had a two-shot lead with six holes left. Watson pulled within one by birdieing the 13th, then holed a 60-footer at the 15th to tie.
They were tied at the par-5 17th, where Watson hit the green in two, then two-putted for birdie, while Nicklaus missed his birdie putt to fall one behind with a hole to play.
So the 18th was full of drama. Watson's second shot finished 2 feet from the hole for a sure birdie, and he appeared to have victory secured when Nicklaus' approach stopped 30 feet from the hole. But Nicklaus made his long putt, forcing Watson to hole his for the win.
Watson shot 65, Nicklaus 66.
"It's been said that this was the finest head-to-head battle in the history of the British Open, and it was certainly the toughest I've experienced in major championship play," Nicklaus said.
Playing together for the final 36 holes, Watson and Nicklaus combined for 23 birdies.
And there was nobody else in sight. "Apart from Tom and Jack, the rest of us were playing a different tournament," said Hubert Green, that year's U.S. Open champion who finished 10 back.
In fact, take out Watson and Nicklaus, and it was some tournament. Green finished one ahead of Lee Trevino, with Ben Crenshaw and George Burns another shot back. Arnold Palmer was next, followed by Raymond Floyd.
It was the second of Watson's five British Open titles and the third of his eight majors. He also would deny Nicklaus at the 1981 Masters and 1982 U.S. Open.
"Coming back and coming back and then coming back again, then eventually winning, that was something," Watson said. "That particular tournament really made me think I could play with the best in the world after that year. I knew after that I could win tournaments. Winning that Open was a defining moment in my life."
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