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The greatest Open ever?

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Rob Hodgetts | 10:30 UK time, Monday, 13 July 2009

Mention the words Open Championship and I drift off to a scene of brilliant blue skies, sun-scorched fairways, rolling sand dunes, the whiff of the sea, and Rupert the Bear trousers the first time around.

In my mind's eye, the Open is like those memories of childhood summer holidays - perfect weather, permanent excitement and ice creams on tap.

It's not always like that, of course, and the last two years have been especially inclement at times with roaring winds and lashing rain.

There's one Open in particular I'm thinking of, and it just happens to be one of the most iconic Opens ever played.

I am, of course, talking about the 1977 classic, dubbed "the Duel in the Sun", held at Turnberry, venue for this week's 138th Open Championship.

(Not that I saw it at the time - I was only five - but it's since seeped into my sub-conscious).

It will forever be remembered for the tumultuous final-day battle between the world's two best players at the time, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson.

Nicklaus, the great Golden Bear, the 14-time major champion. Watson, 10 years his junior at 27, but a former Open winner and the reigning
Masters champion.

"It was dry, sunny and the course was fast and running," recalled BBC golf commentator Ken Brown, who was playing in his second Open as a 20-year-old.

"Everything was parched but the greens were little emerald patches at the end of the fairway."

Nicklaus and Watson were locked together at the top of the leaderboard going into the final round after posting identical rounds of 68, 70 and 65 to lead Ben Crenshaw by three shots.

"You got the feeling there was something special happening as the third round came to an end," BBC commentator Peter Alliss told me from Loch Lomond last week.

Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson at Turnberry in 1977

"There was huge anticipation of the last day's play. Could they keep going at this tremendous level? The scoring was quite remarkable."

On a sun-baked Sunday, Nicklaus quickly went three shots clear but Watson hung on and was a shot behind after seven as the field was left trailing in their wake.

"I remember how hot and dusty it was," said Nicklaus later. "The crowds were enormous. It was like walking down the 18th hole - where the fans run ahead to get to their next vantage point - on every hole."

Most of the fans were by now following the last group and with excitement mounting, the pair were forced to wait on the 14th tee for the throng to clear. Watson turned to Nicklaus and said: "This is what it's all about isn't it?"

"Sure is," replied Nicklaus.

Still one down after 14, Watson dragged a four iron left on the par-three 15th, leaving a 60ft downhill putt. Miraculously, he made it, while Nicklaus carded a solid par. Level again with three to play.

"I had played my four rounds and finished somewhere in the 30s and I drove home listening to it on radio," said Brown. "I just couldn't believe how it was unfolding."

After exchanging pars on the 16th, Watson was first with his second shot to the long 17th and hit a three-iron to 25ft. Nicklaus came up just short.

"What tension. You can feel it sizzling in the air like electricity," said Alliss on commentary at the time. (This was 1977!).

Nicklaus pitched to five feet. Watson hit his putt stone dead. Nicklaus missed. Watson birdied. One ahead.

Watson opted for an iron off the 18th tee and split the fairway. Nicklaus reached for a wood.

"He's going to powder this one with all he's got," whispered Alliss into his microphone.
But Nicklaus drove his ball perilously close to a gorse bush in the right rough.

Out on the fairway, Watson caressed a seven iron into the heart of the green, just a few feet from the pin.

"Elementary, my dear Watson," chuckled Alliss on TV.

Nicklaus blasted his out to the front edge, 35ft away, and then set off up the fairway, dodging the crowds. Watson's caddie Alf Fyles was knocked over in the stampede, but picking himself up he said: "We've got him now mister."

"Not now, not now Alf, he's going to make it," recalled Watson later.

Nicklaus stalked his putt from all angles and then, with that familiar hunched putting style, sent the ball on its way.

"It couldn't, could it?" said Alliss. "Oh, what about that then." The ball dropped and the crowd roared in jubilation.

Nicklaus helped quieten the dim, but Watson calmly stroked in his putt to win by one and claim the second of his five Open titles.

Walking off the green, Nicklaus placed his arm around his countryman's shoulder.

"He said, 'I gave it my best shot and it wasn't good enough'," Watson recalled later. "That was a special moment in my life."

Alliss told me: "They were gladiators, tremendous adversaries, but they appreciated each other's play. They were tough as old boots but they were courteous."

Watson finished 11 strokes clear of third-placed man Hubert Green, who said afterwards: "I won the tournament I was playing in."

Brown added: "It was just electrifying stuff. I shot down the A74; two hours flew by in no time at all. It was like I was in a different world.

"I enjoyed listening on the radio so much that I thought, 'when I stop playing that's what I'd like to do'.

"It was just the cut and thrust of two of the greatest golfers and best sportsmen in the game going at it head-to-head, full tilt, both at the top of their games. It was something very, very special, particularly on an arena like Turnberry."

The 18th on the Ailsa course, originally called "Ailsa Hame", was renamed "Duel in the Sun" in 2003 to commemorate the epic battle.

Click here to watch highlights from 1977

Were you there, or did you watch on telly at the time? If so, what are your memories of the tournament?

Or do you have a suggestion for an alternative greatest Open ever?

Incidentally, in a later BBC TV feature, Watson is looking around the Turnberry clubhouse with Steve Rider. Seeing a picture of himself on the wall, Watson says, "Those trousers will come back one day, like white ties."

Well, I'm not sure about the ties, but judging by the threads of Poulter, McIlroy, Daly et al, I'd say the Rupert strides are most definitely back.

And one other thing. Then, like now, England and Australia were locked in an Ashes battle.

So is there any significance in the fact that someone with the initials TW won that week at Turnberry 32 years ago?

Follow my updates from the Open at Turnberry on Twitter.


  • Comment number 1.

    I hate to tell you this, but it was 32 years ago. Epic.

  • Comment number 2.

    Great stuff... I just hope that this years Open can come close in the stakes of sports-ship and friendship between all players. truly great sporting spectatcles are few and far between, and after yesterdays shinanegans (is that right), let's get back to watching elite sports players at the very tops of their game. Roll on Thursday morning...

  • Comment number 3.

    I also seem to remember Opens finished on a Saturday then not Sumday. Anyway it was a great match. It's interesting to note that although the Open is stroke play, the reason this was so memorable is because it was two men locked in 'match-play' style combat for those final two days. (Actually they played together for all 4 days). For me the Open always signalled the beginning of the school holidays. What more could you want but to watch and play sport all summer!

  • Comment number 4.

    OmniSpudulika - 32 years of course. Good maths.

  • Comment number 5.

    Turnberry 1977. the greatest player the world has ever seen beaten by the greatest ever links golfer

    nothing more to add

  • Comment number 6.

    Yes Robin, I was there in 1977 as a 13-year old schoolkid picking up litter. We even walked underneath the stands to collect rubbish, something that wouldn't be deemed safe these days I'm sure. Since we only worked half-day shifts I had the afternoon to watch the golf. It was my first major golf championship and the atmosphere was great. Got a seat in the free public stand at the 18th hole early afternoon and watched it unfold on the giant scoreboards as the closing groups came down the eighteenth. Nicklaus holing his putt was the pinnacle of a fantastic duel. What would we give to see that again on Sunday with Tiger and Padraig teeing off down 'Duel in the Sun'?

    Great memories.

  • Comment number 7.

    If we have anything like 'the duel in the sun' this year's Open Championship will be spectacular.

    Hopefully the weather will be adverse so as test the players adroitness at dealing with links golf at its best.

  • Comment number 8.

    i remember like it was yesterday...i could not believe it when jack holed out on 18 leaving tom a tricky 3 footer...great times when money wasnt everthing...jack in my opinion is still the greatest...most firsts in majors plus he also holds the most second and third place finishes..the mans a legend.

  • Comment number 9.

    The Open in 1977 finished on the Saturday.It had been raining on the Friday so I took a golf umbrella with me on the GolfLink trainand bus from Glasgow.It was scorching of course and I had to walk about all day carrying an umbrella.
    My favourite memory of 1977 is ending up in a fairway bunker running up the 18th fairway just after Harry Carpenter had whizzed by me in a BBC golf cart.Seeing Jack Nicklaus drain his monster putt on the 18th was incredible,however Tom Watson holed his shorter one for another Open title.It was magical.

  • Comment number 10.

    Yeah, I went with my Dad when I was 12, he kept me off school so he could go. I remember sitting in a pub in Girvan with a shandy while Bob Hope held court and Ben Crenshaw giving me his autograph on the steps of the Turnberry Hotel. Spent the final day scampering after my Dad trying to see through one of those periscope things(think it was broken!). Nearly trampled a few times and parched all day. Did someone win a game of golf?

  • Comment number 11.

    I was at Royal Portrush golf club practising for the North of Ireland. My brother and I watched the final round with about a hundred others in the clubhouse ... but with one eye on the first tee to get out ahead of the hordes for a practise round. When Watson nailed his approach to the 18th we reckoned "that's it" and slipped away to be first on the tee. Thus missed Jack's wonderful putt..........

    Do remember the sunshine though - happy days.

  • Comment number 12.

    I was about 12 at the time and I remember watching it. I guess at 12 you don't understand 'historic' or 'greatest of all time', as you don't know what to compare it with. But I do remember thinking 'Blimey!' on a few occasions on the Saturday (I think the final day was on a Saturday, anyway.......

    The only two I thought matched it were probably St Andrews 1984, when Watson, Ballesteros and Langer charged down the stretch together with Watson going for 3 in a row; and Sandwich when Greg Norman won when he blitzed Faldo and Langer playing the most astonishing stuff I think played on a final day to win.

  • Comment number 13.

    I'd throw in the 1993 Open. A final day with Norman, Faldo and Langer competing was wonderful on such a lovely and challenging course.

  • Comment number 14.

    dmrichkt and AmadeoAvogadro, these are graet stories!! get in touch with me quickly if at all possible,

    I work for a TV company and your anecdotes would work brilliantly in our new sports show!




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