Editor’s Note: When I originally began writing Great 1980s Sports Moments it was more ambitious and I wrote 37 segments from either the 1970s or 1990s. They are the “deleted scenes”, if you will, of the product that became Great 1980s Sports Moments. One of them was one of the great golf duels of all-time, “The Duel In The Sun” between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus at the 1977 British Open. With the 2018 season of golf majors beginning today in Augusta, it seemed like an appropriate time to look back on this great moment.
Tom Watson was the rising star in the world of golf. The 27-year-old arrived in Turnberry, Scotland for the British Open with two major championships under his belt. He had won this tournament in a playoff two years earlier for his breakthrough major. Then in 1977 he edged Jack Nicklaus at the Masters, with a 20-foot birdie on the 17th hole of the final day keying a one-stroke win.
Nicklaus, meanwhile, was the Golden Bear, the 37-year-old legend of the sport. He had displaced Arnold Palmer as the best in the world in the early 1960s, winning his first major in 1962. Within five years, Nicklaus had won all four major tournaments and six overall. Now, he was trying to hold off the young Watson as the pre-eminent player on the tour.
These two men would stage one of the great one-on-one battles in the history of golf in Scotland. They were dead even virtually the entire tournament, culminating in closing day underneath the sun—hence the name for which this tournament is known—where they were the only two with a real chance to win.
History was made on the tournament’s second day, though it wasn’t Nicklaus or Watson. Mark Hayes shot a 63, a single-day record for the British Open. By day’s end, Nicklaus and Watson were in a four-way tie for second.
The Duel In The Sun was preceded by a cloudy day with some showers, where players had to find cover from the rain. Nicklaus and Watson stayed tied at day’s end, but now they were tied for the lead.
If there was anyone who had the potential for regrets for coming into the final day it was Watson, who had missed some makeable putts. In the final round, Nicklaus started fast and built a three-stroke lead after four holes. Watson came back and pulled even over the next four holes. On the ninth hole, there was a delay when an excitable crowd broke onto the fairway and play had to be briefly halted.
The two golfers traded birdies on the 12th and 13th hole to stay tied. Nicklaus edged out by a stroke on 14, and it looked like he would hold the lead on 15 when Watson was lined up for a 60-foot putt just off the green. British TV commentators were noting that Watson had been coming up short in his putting. But he didn’t on this one, sinking it and tying for the lead again.
They stayed even on 16. The 17th hole brought the critical moment. Nicklaus was lining up a three-foot putt. The commentators were saying that this was the type of putt you hated to have to sink with everything on the line. It was just long enough to not be a gimme, but too short to put everything behind. As though he were fulfilling the prophecy, Nicklaus missed and Watson was up a stroke going into the final hole.
Watson teed off with an iron to play it safe and hit a perfectly placed ball down the middle. Nicklaus, as the one doing the chasing, felt the pressure and unleashed with his driver. The ball ended up in the rough. Watson followed with a gorgeous iron shot that ended up right next to the cup.
The tournament seemed all but over, and Watson had to put up his hands to restrain the crowd. But it wouldn’t have been the Duel In The Sun if the Golden Bear didn’t have one last bit of fight. In rough so tight there was barely room for a backswing, Nicklaus hit a perfect shot and put it on the green. The he drained a 35-foot putt.
As the cameras followed Watson during this sequence and as the crowd raced to the 18th hole, it had the feel of a coronation having already started. No one expected this short putt to mean anything, and one wonders if Watson could have re-started his adrenaline had he missed. We won’t know, because he didn’t miss, softly putting the putt in the cup. The Duel In The Sun was over.
Watson had his second narrow win over Nicklaus in 1977, and in 1981 Watson edged out the Golden Bear in the Masters again, this time by two strokes. Between 1975-83, Tom Watson won eight major tournaments. He missed winning the PGA, thanks to a rare collapse in 1978 when he lost a five-stroke lead on the final day. But it was about the only thing Tom Watson missed out in a splendid career that was highlighted when he won The Duel In The Sun.