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Captain MARVEL
Rick Reilly
September 18, 1989
Golfer Tony Jacklin, whose life has been a roller coaster, is riding high again as leader of Europe's Ryder Cup team
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September 18, 1989

Captain Marvel

Golfer Tony Jacklin, whose life has been a roller coaster, is riding high again as leader of Europe's Ryder Cup team

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Such scenes motivated Jacklin then and still fuel him now. "America is portrayed worldwide as being this big, open-armed country, yet the rules have been made extraordinarily difficult for the foreign golfer in the U.S.," he says. "I think it's a sad reflection on the U.S. The Ryder Cup is our one chance to prove ourselves."

Ah, but if America wasn't all Jacklin's, England was. They named a flower after him. He lunched at Buckingham Palace. He had a mansion in the Cotswolds. Vidal Sassoon cut his hair. Rolls-Royce made his car. He was devilish and fun, and seemed to be in it for more than his bank balance.

Great Britain, starved for sports heroes, wasn't about to let go of this one. And that eventually became a problem. Of course, no one could see it then. European golf lay at his feet and when he teed off in the 1971 British Open he thought he could win his third major in three years. Jacklin always thought he could win.

"I never thought Jack Nicklaus was any better than me when it came to playing against him," he says. Athletically, maybe not. Emotionally, certainly so. Nicklaus was unflappable, while Jacklin's confidence was sewn of cheesecloth. Nicklaus could win in a minefield, but Jacklin had to be happy, comfortable, unruffled and settled to achieve. When he was those things he was bulletproof—he once shot 29 on the front nine at St. Andrews in the British Open—and when he wasn't, he could come apart like an 89-cent radio.

Jacklin didn't come apart in 1971, but he didn't win either. Lee Trevino did. Lu Liang Huan was second, Jacklin third. In 1972 at Muirfield it came down to Trevino and Jacklin. Making like Houdini among the hillocks, Trevino holed a sand shot and chipped in from 30 feet during the third round alone. Still, the two men were tied for the lead on the last day as they came to the par-5 17th. Trevino's guardian angel was starting to lag behind. Lee hooked his drive into a bunker—he hits a hook once every British coronation—blasted out sideways, hooked his third shot badly, then pitched over the green. What could stop Jacklin now?

What stopped him was the unthinkable. Slapping at his chip disgustedly and almost without thought, Trevino sent his shot toward the other side of the green, but the ball unexpectedly deposited itself in the cup for a par. Jacklin three-putted from 16 feet for bogey. Jacklin was flabbergasted. Here was his Open being handed to someone who didn't seem to even want it. Trevino won with a routine par on 18, and Jacklin never contended in a major again.

"I felt bloody sick," Jacklin said. "Nothing's fair. Life and golf are for the takers. You've got to take it, grab it and keep it. Never give anything away."

That three-putt hung on his shoulder like a rotting fish. Suddenly, one of the most confident players in the world got the shakes over a tap-in. As the family grew—Brad was born in 1969, Warren in '72, and Tina in '75—Vivien was staying home more, and Tony was miserably alone, especially when he played in the U.S. In 1973, he quit the American tour.

The British press reacted in predictable fashion, JACKLIN, FALLEN IDOL screeched one headline. His putting only got worse. By 1977, he had resorted to a variety of desperate measures, including not looking at the ball when he putted, not opening his eyes when he putted, putting cross-handed—everything but getting down on his hands and knees and blowing the thing into the hole. One day in 1976, while playing in the Bob Hope Desert Classic, he became so terrified of his putter that he went back to his hotel room and passed out.

True, he would win a German Open and an Italian Open and a British PGA Championship now and again, but nothing befitting a man who once wore gold lame. So, in 1983, he gave it up and moved to Sotogrande, 20 minutes from the Rock of Gibraltar. That year he was the nonplaying captain of the European Ryder Cup team, and his team nearly knocked off Nicklaus's in his first try, losing by one point at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.; he broke through at The Belfry in 1985 for the first non-U.S. win in 28 years, beating a team led by none other than Trevino. In 1987 the Europeans repeated, defeating Nicklaus's team at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, the first time the U.S. had ever lost on home soil. "Jacklin should be knighted for what he's done for European golf," said Welsh golf star Ian Woosnam. Jacklin wanted to retire then, but the Ryder Cup players wouldn't let him. They petitioned him to stay, and he agreed, for one more match.

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