It seemed to be all over. Standing on the last green of the 1970 British Open at St. Andrews, I surveyed my second putt, stroked it and watched it roll just past the hole. Just as it died, I heard a roar coming from the direction of the 17th green, and I knew that Doug Sanders, who was now leading me by a shot, had parred the hole. I was completely dejected. My caddie had tears in his eyes. Neither of us imagined Sanders would make anything worse than par on the 18th. I walked over and tapped in my third putt (I had three-putted three of the last five holes), then headed toward the scorer's table.
After signing my card, I went into Keith Mackenzie's trailer to watch Sanders play the last hole on television. Someone said he had hit the ball 35 feet past the pin on his approach. I decided to go out and watch him finish and then congratulate him on winning the Open. I saw Doug's first putt stop about three feet short of the cup. Tony Jacklin, who was standing next to me, whispered, "Hey, Jack, you're still alive." Meanwhile, Gerald Micklem of the Royal and Ancient was talking to my wife Barbara.
"I placed the pins myself this morning," he told her. "That is a very difficult putt for Sanders. It looks straight, but it breaks to the right. You cannot read it. More to the right and he could read it. But not there."
Sure enough, when he putted, Doug didn't allow for the strong break the ball took to the right. The putt never even touched the hole and, incredibly, I was alive again.
Three-putt greens almost ruined me at St. Andrews this year, and I am not consoled by the fact that someone else's third putt on the final regulation hole put me into the playoff I ultimately won. Apart from the huge St. Andrews greens, which total around six acres (compared to a little over three acres on the average American course), St. Andrews threw something else at us this year that further complicated our putting problems. The wind.
On hitting an approach to the greens, you were tempted to run after it with a coin in your hand so you could mark it before the wind began blowing the ball away. Preparing to play your putt, you did not study the contours of the green; instead, you checked the wind. A putt might break three feet right to left, but if the wind was blowing from left to right, you played your putt left to right also.
Sometimes it was even tough to get comfortable over your putts, particularly for more deliberate players like myself. I was always 10th to set my putter head behind the ball, for fear the wind would move it while the club was grounded, which costs you a stroke. When you pulled the putter back, the wind would actually move it off the line of the putt an inch or more. Players were stabbing the tops of their golf balls almost as often as they were hitting them smoothly. Lee Trevino, who is particularly fast around the greens, putted superbly for the first three rounds at St. Andrews, but then on the fourth day he seemed to get cautious, which probably hurt him. At least that seems a reasonable explanation why a good putter like Lee three-putted seven greens on the last round.
But if putting was the key to victory at St. Andrews, then tradition was what made it all worthwhile. When it comes to golf, I am a young (if 30 still is considered young these days) sentimentalist. Golf lore and tradition and nostalgia turn me on. Great golf courses—an Augusta National, an Oakmont, a Baltusrol, a Firestone, a Merion, a Pebble Beach—overwhelm me. And the more turned on I am, the better I play. I was really high, really turned on, really emotional during the 10 days I spent at St. Andrews, the place where the game was born. St. Andrews is what the game really means. Almost all the great golfers have played the Old Course, and the course has always demanded strong golf. I wanted to be part of St. Andrews. I wanted to win on the Old Course.
A golfer must play there at least a dozen times before he can expect to understand its subtleties. If a player becomes irritated at the bad bounces and unusual things that happen at St. Andrews, forget it. The Old Course must be accepted for what it is: a layout built hundreds of years ago and still such a challenge that no player ever has torn it apart over 72 holes.
Actually, without the wind St. Andrews is not difficult. However, because it sits alongside the North Sea, St. Andrews never goes more than a day without the wind, and it very rarely blows in the same direction for two straight minutes. Considering the velocity (53 mph at times during the Open) and the direction of the wind, it really is about 360 golf courses in one. For instance, one day you might want to play your tee shot on the par-5 14th hole into the middle of the adjacent 5th fairway. Then, the next day—after a shift in the wind that might bring the Beardies into play—you might want to play your drive 100 yards the other way.