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He stood against one of those sand hills, one foot halfway up the rise, a gloved hand braced on his knee and his head hung downward in monumental despair. He lingered in this pose, with what seemed like all of Scotland surrounding him, with the North Sea gleaming in the background and with the quiet broken only by the awkward, silly, faraway sound of bagpipes rehearsing for the victory ceremony. This was Jack Nicklaus on the next to last hole of the British Open after another putt had refused to fall. It was Nicklaus in the moment he knew, after a furious comeback, that he had finally lost the championship and what might have been the grandest slam in golf. One more putt of any size on any of these last seven holes and Nicklaus would have completed what could seriously have been termed the most brilliant rally the game had ever known.
But one more putt did not drop for Nicklaus, and on the same hole minutes later one more chip shot did curl implausibly into the cup for implausible Lee Trevino. Finally, after all the shattering heroics last week at Muirfield, the whole world had a right to feel over-golfed and oversuspensed.
The honest fact is, there are two fairly incredible golfers today, Nicklaus and Trevino, and the two of them have been producing so many memorable major championships lately that it is getting hard to keep them straight. The last two U.S. Opens pretty much have been a Nicklaus-Trevino saga, and so have the last three British Opens. It may be well and good to keep talking about Nicklaus' 13 major titles, but think about this: since the 1968 U.S. Open, when he first became a winner, Super Mex has won as many big ones (four) as Nicklaus has over the same period. And, for all of that drama and suspense last week, it was still the happy Mexican who never stopped providing the comedy that the stifling pressure at Muirfield needed.
Trevino tossed out all the usual lines about God being Mexican or else Nicklaus would still be alive for the Grand Slam; about switching back and forth from the small British ball to the larger American ball and how the American ball always looked like a melon; about the castle he had rented for the week ("They got to have some kind of princess locked up in there someplace"); and about the lukewarm drinks the Scots are accustomed to ("No wonder everybody over here's so wrinkled up"). That was Trevino all week.
It probably can be said that Nicklaus waited too long to attack Muirfield, that he perished with his own conservative game plan on a course that played easier than he expected because of some unanticipated glory-be weather. When Jack finally turned aggressive for Saturday's closing 18, when he was six shots down and the lids came off his driver and three wood, he shot a 66 to tie the course record and, at one point, miraculously lead the tournament by one stroke. Jack will think long about the holes he let get away during the earlier rounds and he will dwell, too, on the six late putts that refused to disappear into the cups—a 12-footer for a birdie at the 12th, a 15-footer for a birdie at the 13th, an 18-footer for another birdie at the 14th, a four-footer for yet another birdie at the 15th, a three-footer for a saving par at the 16th and, the last gasp, the 20-foot birdie putt at the 17th.
Saturday, the oh-so-memorable Saturday, began with only four potential winners of this Open. Trevino held a one-stroke lead by virtue of a flood of Friday birdies. They came five in a row from the 14th through the 18th, including an astonishing hole-out of a sand shot at 16—which even Lee admitted should have been a double bogey—and the sinking of a 30-foot chip on the last green. Next was Tony Jacklin, who was up there despite a triple bogey during the second round; and then Doug Sanders, who was only four back despite a triple bogey of his own along the way. And finally Jack Nicklaus—if he could muster an Arnold Palmer type of thing.
Jack did exactly that. Through 11 holes, as he was being cheered madly by a rousing British crowd of 20,000, he seemed to be playing, at last, the definitive round of golf. He was perfect with every club, and he had pushed to six under par. "Look at this," Trevino said to Jacklin as they went to the 9th tee. "Nicklaus has gone crazy. We're out here beating each other to death, and that son of a gun's done caught us and passed us."
Two little dramas of high order were going on at this point. Up ahead, the crowds were yelling for the Nicklaus Slam as he strode the length of the 11th fairway toward another short birdie putt. Back at the 9th, Trevino had told his caddie, "We're behind, son. Gimme that driver, we got to make something happen." Trevino absolutely killed his drive at the skinny 9th fairway. He then put a five-iron within 18 feet of the hole and made the putt for an eagle. Suddenly he was back to even par for the day, and back to six under for the tournament. And Jacklin, too, eagled the 9th, to stay within one shot of Trevino.
Nicklaus, meanwhile, tried to address the birdie putt on the 11th green that would put him in a tie with Trevino at six under. He heard the two roars for the eagles, backed away from his putt and smiled. Then he coldly made the birdie, and once more came an explosion of sound, this time from his own gallery. It was an eerie moment hearing those roars back to back to back. Trevino remembered later, "After our eagles at 9, I told Tony, 'That'll give Jack something to think about.' Then we heard his birdie roar and I said, 'I think the man just gave us something else to think about.' "
What can be said of Trevino and how he actually won? How can it be accounted for? Nicklaus worked for more than a week at Muirfield, while Trevino arrived late. Wearing a planter's hat and cracking jokes, he practiced only two days. "I brought this trophy back," he said upon arrival, "but I shouldn't have. It's just going back to El Paso."