SOUTHPORT, ENGLAND_ Last year’s epic golf battle at Royal Troon between Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and American Phil Mickelson was golf at its finest. Two men in superb form separating themselves from the field and providing all who were watching a level of play that harkened back 40 years ago when two of the game’s greatest — Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson — waged an equally similar display of golf that until last year had never been remotely matched.
In 1977 the R&A opted to stage The Open Championship at Turnberry — on the west coast of Scotland for the first time.
Watson’s ascendancy to the top of the golfing ladder had started with his win that past April at Augusta National at The Masters. Tom had been able to overcome Nicklaus down the stretch and many had begun to surmise the Missourian was now moving quickly to surpass the Golden Bear.
The golf the duo displayed at Turnberry during the final 36-holes was simply brilliant. The two were paired together both Saturday and Sunday and their play in the 3rd round — both men scoring 65’s — provided a three-shot lead going into the final round over Ben Crenshaw.
Called the “Duel in the Sun” because the weather for the final two days was total sunshine and featured a layout that played firm and fast for the entire event. Scottish golf fans flocked to the course to see the two best players in the world battle for possession of The Claret Jug.
Neither man backed down from the other. Birdies were made in machine gun mode. Early in the final round it was soon clear everyone else was playing for no better than 3rd place.
During a break of play as galleries were swarming over the course to keep up with the two — both Nicklaus and Watson waited for the marshals to get control of the situation — the two combatants locked visually onto one another at the 14th tee with Watson saying to Nicklaus — “This is what it’s all about.” The Golden Bear responded briefly but ever to the point — “It sure is.”
Watson had trailed by two strokes early in the round but did not falter in relentlessly pursuing Nicklaus. The key point came at the long par-3 15th — Watson pulled his approach and found the fringe area — 60 feet from the hole. Nicklaus countered by hitting another of his famed long iron to no more than 15-feet for birdie. It appeared Nicklaus would have a solid opportunity to extend his one stroke lead at that point. Watson countered with a putt that defies belief. Striking his ball solidly with a putter the ball raced across the green — hit the pin squarely — and disappeared below the lining of the cup. Nicklaus, as well as all watching, could hardly believe such a thing could have happened. The Golden Bear still had a putt to tie the hole and keep the one stroke advantage. The putt came close but remained outside the hole.
It was at that point Nicklaus knew Watson was not going to surrender.
At the par-5 17th it was the Golden Bear who blinked — missing a four-foot matching birdie to keep the contest tied. With a one stroke lead going to the final hole — Watson smashed a 1-iron splitting the fairway.
Nicklaus knowing the championship was slipping away tried valiantly to hit a long driver to provide a short iron approach. The Bear pushed his tee shot far right and was lucky to have just enough space from a gorse bush for an attempt to approach the green. Watson played first and nailed his 7-iron approach to just inside three-feet.
It seemed the contest was over but as Nicklaus demonstrated throughout his long career — he rose to the occasion — getting his approach onto the green — 35 feet from the hole.
In true dramatic fashion Nicklaus dropped the putt and those on hand witnessing the magnificent feat let loose with a deafening roar. For Watson’s sake the length of the putt was not especially long but was still needed to be holed to secure the victory. The stroke was ever sure with the ball falling into the cup giving Watson the 2nd of what would be five Open Championship titles.
As the two competitors embraced at the 18th hole — it was Nicklaus who honestly summed up his play — “I gave it my best — I could not shake him.”
The Stenson / Mickelson battle was no less epic. The Swede played the final 36-holes in 131 strokes – with a final round 63 to seal the victory by three. It was the first time since Johnny Miller’s final round 63 at Oakmont in winning the 1973 US Open that a player had matched the score and did so in the final round to claim victory. Mickelson’s play was no less sensational. Trailing by just one stroke entering the final round, Lefty scored a 65 which would have been sufficient to win just about any time. Just not this time against Henrik.
The Duel in the Sun will always be remembered because it featured the two finest players in the game — at peak form — pushing one another to the maximum. The saga summed up well by 3rd place finisher Hubert Green — who lagged eleven shots behind the victorious Watson. “I won the golf tournament. I don’t know what game those other two guys were playing.”