Because of the nature of the courses and the conditions, British Opens tend to sear into the memory especially audacious golf shots. For some reason, Birkdale seems to produce an abundance of such recollections. There is, after all, the monument in stone and bronze to Arnold Palmer, commemorating a five-iron he struck into the wind and onto the old 15th green, taking with it a bush and a half acre of brush, to rescue a par and preserve his victory. There is no plaque but there should be on Birkdale's 6th for the five-wood that Lee Trevino hit in 1971, which won him his first of two British Opens, a blind screamer of more than 250 yards that came to rest within two feet of the flag for a birdie on maybe the toughest hole in Britain—a hole that led to Ballesteros' undoing. Last week Jack Nicklaus hit such a shot at Birkdale in the third round that kept him well in contention, and it cries out for description because of its uniqueness.
Jack was playing the par-5 17th, and he had driven into the calf-deep right rough and he badly need a birdie. Nicklaus took out a six-iron and you could no more see even a glimpse of the ball in the grass than you could see his shoes. Later Nicklaus confessed it was the hardest swing he had ever taken at a golf ball. Laying open the face of the club, Jack attempted what he described as an intentional "flying cut." The ball soared an incredible 245 yards—two hundred and forty-five yards with a six-iron, mind you—and it reached the green only 20 feet from the pin.
While it was a golf shot for the ages, it merely led to the thing that kept Nicklaus continually out of range of Miller and the championship, another putt that singed the cup rather than dropping in.
What was left for Nicklaus was a tie for second with the unpredictable Spaniard, who, after all his messing about, closed with eagle-birdie and won that thunderous roar of approval that only comes from the grandstands at a British Open. It was the fifth time Nicklaus had been a runner-up in the oldest of the Big Four championships, this against his two victories, both of which have come in Scotland.
Nicklaus was those distant six strokes behind Johnny Miller at the end, however, which is what happens when you give Miller an opening and find him swinging well. Jack needed to put pressure on Miller earlier in the week, and earlier on the final day of Saturday, and he never really did.
In effect, this was Johnny Miller's tournament after the second round when he found himself trailing Ballesteros by only two strokes. Sooner or later a clump of some weird botanical species had to claim one or two of those wild shots the young Spaniard kept hitting. A triple bogey at the 11th did it for sure.
It had taken a while but it finally happened, and when it did Johnny Miller was there to strike his own match to not so jolly old Birkdale.