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Dan Jenkins
June 28, 1971
Who'll ever forget it? Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, a gutty amateur and a tough old golf course combined to produce a melodramatic U.S. Open
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June 28, 1971

Remember The Battle Of Merion

Who'll ever forget it? Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, a gutty amateur and a tough old golf course combined to produce a melodramatic U.S. Open

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For three days the U.S. Open and marvelous old Merion belonged to all of those unusual characters who always seem to clutter up an Open: a dogged tour veteran named Labron Harris Jr.; a tall, paunchy transient named Bob Erickson; a guy named Jim Colbert, whose putter looked like the bandage hadn't been taken off; and a young amateur, Jim Simons, who had the appearance of a kid who didn't like his date for the prom. But then it came down to what everyone knew it would, this superb course acknowledging only the best in golf, and ultimately it was Lee Trevino (see cover) playing Jack Nicklaus one-on-one for the title—Nicklaus, the country-club kid from Ohio, our best shotmaker, against Trevino, the Mexican from Texas, our best hustler.

It came down to a dramatic playoff on Monday, and right away you had to feel it might be Trevino's day. Around Merion's usually tranquil starting hole the tension was unbelievable (Nicklaus was sitting under a tree, his head down) when Trevino came out to the tee, smacking gum, rubbing his hands together, pacing, waving to the crowd. He reached into a side pocket of his golf bag, pulled out a three-foot-long toy snake and held it up. The crowd shrieked as Lee laughed and tossed it at a scrambling Nicklaus. Big Jack broke up laughing. So did the crowd. So did the world.

"I need all the help I can get," Lee shouted cheerfully, shaking the very land where Jones and Hogan had won, and the playoff began.

The only frightening thing after that was Nicklaus' sand wedge, which left him in bunkers at the second and third for a bogey and a double bogey and let Trevino take a two-stroke lead. Nicklaus managed to pull himself together, but Trevino played steady, beautiful two-under-par golf to win 68 to 71 for his second Open title. In his classic hustler's way, Trevino topped Nicklaus at every opportunity. When Jack birdied the fifth, Lee birdied the eighth. When Jack birdied the 11th, Lee birdied the 12th. And when Jack had a birdie putt waiting at 15 that would gain him a stroke, Lee rammed a far longer putt home first.

Trevino said, "I'm a lucky dog. You gotta be lucky to beat Jack Nicklaus because he's the greatest golfer who ever held a club."

The day before, Sunday, had been even more dramatic. Young Simons, who had shocked everybody by taking a two-stroke lead after 54 holes, had quickly done what a 21-year-old amateur in his exalted position is supposed to do in the Open's final round—he made a couple of bogeys to let everyone draw close. Nicklaus caught his young playing companion on the 4th hole by sinking a slow, curling, downhill 30-footer. But on the next hole Jack did what Jack seldom does: he suffered his second double bogey of the tournament. He had played croquet around the Baffling Brook at the famed 11th on Friday, and now on Sunday at the difficult 5th he drew his tee shot wildly into a creek.

Such things happen at Merion, and Nicklaus' disaster brought to mind what Trevino had been saying about the course all week. "There are 16 birdie holes here," he conceded, "but there are 18 bogey holes. I'll eat all the cactus around El Paso if anybody breaks 280."

Nicklaus' poor play on the 5th, just when he seemed to be taking charge, made it anybody's tournament again, and Trevino looked like the anybody who would win it. Lee, that Supermex unknown who had won the Open at Oak Hill in 1968, played the best golf on Sunday, and for a couple of hours the Open was all his, until Nicklaus caught up with him again on the last hole.

Trevino had said Sunday morning that he thought he would win because "I'm playing fantastic." He said, "I've been playing super ever since Nicklaus told me in February that he hoped I never found out how good I really was. For the best player in the world to tell me that just filled me up with confidence, and I've almost won every tournament I've been in the last six weeks. I know I can win this thing."

Considering the circumstances, Trevino's golf on Sunday might be the best he ever played. All he did was split the center of the narrow fairways and rivet his irons right to those wicker baskets that Merion calls flagsticks. Somebody said Trevino thought maybe they were Pennsylvania pi�atas. He very nearly made a deuce at the tilted 12th with more backspin on his approach shot than you can get in car wheels on a sandy road. That birdie put him in a tie for the lead. On the 13th a 20-foot birdie putt stopped short of the cup by the width of a tamale husk, but then he birdied the 14th to take the lead by himself and held it with an eight-footer for a par at the 15th.

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