SI Vault
Frank Deford
July 14, 1986
As the British Open returns to Turnberry, Scotland, the author recounts golf's greatest match: Watson-Nicklaus, 1977
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July 14, 1986

The Best Against The Best

As the British Open returns to Turnberry, Scotland, the author recounts golf's greatest match: Watson-Nicklaus, 1977

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As they approached the tee at the 72nd hole, Alfie Fyles, Tom Watson's caddie, spoke up. "Go for the jugular," he said, and Watson broke a small grin and nodded his head and asked for his one-iron. This was it, at last; this would be the final hole in what, even then, people were calling the greatest golf match ever. Watson had gone head to head with Jack Nicklaus—the young lion, the challenger of this decade, vs. the golfer of the ages—in the first British Open ever played on the Ailsa course at Turnberry, on the Ayrshire coast, by the Firth of Clyde, off the North Channel of the Irish Sea. It was July of 1977; Nicklaus was 37, still in his prime, and Watson was 27, the new Masters champion, just coming into his.

On this last hole, Watson's tee shot drifted a bit left, but still clear of the bunker that sat 260 yards out. It was "awfully perfect," said Watson, so Nicklaus didn't hesitate.

For the first time on this hole he yanked out his driver and called up his power. It was incredible what he and Watson had done: identical 68-70s the first two days, matching 65s the third day, playing almost stroke for stroke together the final two rounds, pushing each other higher and higher, driving the gallery into a happy frenzy. They were a shot apart coming to the last hole, but still, either one of them could 70-putt the 18th green and finish runner-up. The winner's 268 would be the best score in British Open history by eight strokes. Two men had never played golf like this before, side by side.

The instant Nicklaus finished his swing he knew he had tried too hard and had hit the ball too full. The 18th fairway bent left just past the bunker Watson had missed, and Nicklaus wanted his drive to drift that way. Unfortunately his drives had been sailing to the right all day, and once again his tee shot flew that way, through the crook in the fairway, into rough as deep as there was anywhere on the course. Nicklaus turned the driver in his hand like a baton, took the offending club end and banged the handle down angrily to the turf as he stomped off the tee. To think it would end like this. It had to finish in glory. Nobody should lose this match. He or Watson, either one, O.K., but this was a match one of them had to win.

Watson walked over to check on Nicklaus's lie. At first he wasn't sure that the ball was even playable; it was buried deep in tall grass, only inches from a prickly strand of gorse. Would Jack be able to bring a club back, much less muscle the ball out? Watson decided Nicklaus would just be able to negotiate a swing, and he returned to his own ball, which lay perhaps 180 yards from the pin.

"What do you think?" he asked Alfie. The caddie fingered the seven-iron. Watson stared at him quizzically.

"What? You know I can only carry 160-65 with a six"

"The way your adrenaline's pumpin', Tom...." was all Alfie said, and his man took the seven. Watson hit it full-blooded to the pin, 30 inches from the cup.

It surely must be over now.

Nicklaus grasped his eight-iron. He took it back right through a branch of the gorse bush, macheted it down with a superhuman swat and sent the ball and a massive divot flying out. Somehow the ball found the right side of the green, 32 feet from the flag. It was impossible. Right away Watson knew—knew—that Nicklaus was going to make that putt for a birdie.

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