Jack Nicklaus has the best record in the major championships of any player in history. The numbers say it all. He has won six Masters, five PGA Championships, four U.S. Opens and three British Opens. In the 80 majors he entered during his peak years, between 1962 and '81, Nicklaus finished in the top five 51 times. Perhaps most amazing of all, Nicklaus has finished second (19 times) more often than he has won, and he has been runner-up in the British Open more times (seven) than in any other major. Next week marks the 20th and 25th anniversaries of Nicklaus's most memorable seconds.
The '77 British Open, at Turnberry, concluded with what many consider the most brilliant two-round, two-man duel in tournament history. Nicklaus, 37, had already won 14 major titles, but he had finished second to an ascendant Tom Watson in that spring's Masters. At the British Open both men opened with rounds of 68-70 and trailed Roger Maltbie by a shot. Then, paired together for the last two days, Nicklaus and Watson staged their own pyrotechnics on Turnberry's burned-out fairways. After matching 65s in the third round, they finished their seesaw battle on the back nine of the final round. Watson birdied four of the last six holes, sinking a 60-footer from off the green on the par-3 15th, to shoot another 65. Nicklaus shot 66 and lost by a stroke, although his 269 total was seven shots lower than the previous scoring record in the Open.
Five years earlier, Nicklaus had won both the Masters and the U.S. Open, so going into Muirfield, everyone was talking about a possible Grand Slam. Lee Trevino was the defending champion, having won at Royal Birkdale in '71, and he was trying to live up to his reputation as the only player able to stand up to Nicklaus in the majors. The year before in the U.S. Open at Merion, Trevino had outplayed Nicklaus head-to-head, beating him by three shots in a playoff.
Trevino was the leader after the third round thanks to a course-record 66 that featured five birdies in a row. Nicklaus, meanwhile, was nursing a sore neck and put up scores of 70, 72 and 71, which left him six shots behind. But when he woke up on the morning of the final round, his neck felt fine. He played the first 11 holes in four under and caught and passed Trevino. The gallery began to chant "Nicklaus Slam."
Two holes behind, Trevino heard the cheers and responded by crushing his drive on the par-5 9th. He hit a five-iron to within 18 feet and made the eagle putt to regain the lead for good. Trevino wound up shooting 71, compared with Nicklaus's record-matching 66, but Trevino had accomplished his goal. "I didn't come to Scotland to help Nicklaus win any Grand Slam," he said.