It is hard to imagine nearly 50 years have passed since the famous concession offered by Jack Nicklaus against Tony Jacklin in the final match to assure a tied outcome — the first in Ryder Cup history. The Americans would hold onto the Cup by virtue of their win two years earlier in Texas.
Going in the UK side had not tasted victory since the 1957 matches. The feelings between the two teams was certainly a bit raw. The USA squad had developed a sense of arrogance and entitlement — believing a win in the matches was always going be a foregone conclusion. For the UK the feelings of being thought of as non-entities was grating to the point of combustion. Two years earlier American Captain Ben Hogan proclaimed during the USA team introductions in 1967 at Champions that, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce the finest golfers in the world.” The UK squad saw the Birkdale encounter as a way to show a competitive spine that had been missing for too long.
The American side featured two notable rookies — Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino. Although Nicklaus had emerged onto the professional golf scene starting in 1962, he needed to fulfill his five year membership requirements with the PGA of America in order to be eligible to participate on the American team. Trevino was certainly a new face given his triumph one year earlier at the ’68 US Open.
The UK team was bolstered by the presence of 25-year-old Tony Jacklin — a fierce competitor who had just won The Open Championship a few months prior at Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s. The first Briton to win the event since 1951 and the last to do until Sandy Lyle triumphed in 1985.
The American squad was Captained by Sam Snead and the UK effort was led at the helm by Eric Brown. The relationship between the two was on par with how the cobra and mongoose get along. Brown had suggested that all team members not participate in the searching for any American balls that found the rough. Snead was no less cantankerous — not wanting to see any fraternization between the players.
The UK squad jumped out quickly — establishing a 3 1/2 to 1/2 lead after morning foursome play. That lead would hold till the afternoon four-balls when the two teams finished all square at 8 points heading into the final singles matches.
The program for matches then was to conclude with a morning and afternoon singles matches — a total of 16 points up for grabs. The UK won the morning session and was keyed by Jacklin’s domination of Nicklaus by a 4&3 margin. Heading into the final eight singles the UK led by two points 13-11.
In the afternoon the American squad rallied — with four of the first six matches won by team USA. The final two matches would determine the outcome. In the penultimate match Billy Casper halved with Brian Huggett. The final match – having Jacklin again meeting Nicklaus would likely determine the outcome. At the par-5 17th Jacklin dropped a 50-foot putt for eagle with Nicklaus no more than 15 feet to keep the match square. The Golden Bear missed and the players proceeded to Birkdale’s 18th with everything on the line. Nicklaus was faced with a five-foot putt for par and after surveying the situation and standing over the ball for what seemed like an eternity he made the putt. Jacklin rested just beyond two feet and once Jack had holed his putt he immediately picked-up Jacklin’s marker shaking hands with him. Nicklaus said it plainly to Jacklin, “I don’t think you would have missed it, but I wasn’t going to give you the chance, either.”
For the first time the Ryder Cup Matches were tied and with America winning in 1967 the Cup remained in their hands. Nicklaus was keenly aware of this when conceding Jacklin’s putt but for Snead and a few other American players the thought of conceding a putt of any length at that stage of the event was inconceivable. Winning outright was something that Snead and a number of other American squad members wanted.
Nicklaus knew full well that had Jacklin missed the putt the lifetime tagline of losing the Cup would forever be tagged to his legacy. In less than a year’s time Jacklin would win the 1970 US Open and establish himself as one of the elite players in the game.
Years later the two would come together and create The Concession Golf Club in Florida. The concession offered by Nicklaus is rightly cited as among golf’s most sportsmanlike gestures. The frayed feelings between the teams was not eliminated in its entirety but the act by Nicklaus was a clear sign that a balance between winning and doing so in the spirit of sportsmanship are not two incompatible elements. One can only wonder what will happen if similar circumstances should occur at Le Golf National this week.
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