Duel In The Sun: When Tom Watson Famously Battled Past Jack Nicklaus At The 1977 Open Championship

Duel In The Sun: When Tom Watson Famously Battled Past Jack Nicklaus At The 1977 Open Championship
17:01, 17 Jul 2019

The history of sport is jam-packed with epic duels.

Only last weekend, Novak Djokovic ousted Roger Federer in the longest ever Wimbledon singles final, while at the same time in the same city England’s cricketers dramatically edged out New Zealand in a sensational Cricket World Cup Final.

If you’re in need of another sporting fix, then have no fear because the 148th edition of the oldest major in golf - The Open Championship - is about to take centre stage at Royal Portrush. A tournament that will see the likes of Roy McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Tiger Woods, and Justin Rose attempt to win one of the most prized pieces of silverware in sport: The Claret Jug.

Golf too has enjoyed a catalogue of compelling clashes over the years, the most famous of which was arguably at the 1977 Open when Jack Nicklaus and his young rival Tom Watson gripped the golfing world. It’s now known as the ‘Duel In The Sun’ - a contest so enthralling that it even has its own book: Mike Corcoran's Duel in the Sun.

The field itself was bustling with future Hall of Famers, eight of whom finished in the top 10, while future Open champions Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros were also present at Turnberry.

But, back to the two protagonists.

Nicklaus, winner of 14 majors at the time, jetted over in search of his third Claret Jug, while fellow American Watson had two major successes to his name; the first of which was at The Open two years prior, while his second triumph had been earlier in 1977 when he’d beaten Nicklaus by two shots at the Masters.

The duo battled to-and-fro over the first three days, carding the same birdie-splattered score on each day (68-70-65) to set up a climactic fourth and final round. Record-breaking crowds eagerly gathered at a sunbaked Turnberry to see Nicklaus storm into a three-shot lead after just four holes, only for Watson to fire back and draw level over the course of the subsequent four holes. 

When the pair arrived at the 9th hole, an avalanche of fans spilt onto the fairway. It seemed to affect Watson more as he dropped a shot, then come the 12th hole Nicklaus had conjured up a two-shot lead. However, then came one of the shots of the tournament on the 15th hole as Watson sunk a 60-foot birdie putt from off the green.

"It was one of many putts in my career that broke other players' hearts,” Watson would later reveal.

The duel then fittingly came down to the final hole on Scotland’s west coast, with Watson a shot ahead after Nicklaus had missed a birdie opportunity on the 17th, one he would have usually have effortlessly gobbled up.

Watson plucked out an iron and his accurate tee sailed through pristine blue skies and plopped perfectly onto the middle of the fairway, before an exquisite pin-point approach shot landed within two-and-a-half feet of the hole. In contrast, Nicklaus fired his tee-shot to the right into the rough, under a gorse bush. He then somehow managed to find the green, 35 feet away from the hole.

"You've got it now, mister," caddie Alfie Fyles confidently said to Watson (via The Telegraph). 

"Jack's going to make that putt," Watson replied. 

Watson was right. Nicklaus showed nerves of steel to sink the putt from distance, and in turn pile the pressure on Watson, whose two-and-a-half foot putt for glory suddenly didn’t seem so simple.

Nicklaus, ever the sportsman, settled the raucous crowd down, which allowed Watson to regain his composure and coolly slot home. The players departed the green arm-in-arm, in what has become a truly iconic moment.

"I remember every one of his shots. And every one of mine," recalled Watson, whose final score of 268 smashed the tournament record by a whopping eight shots. Watson would go on to win The Open a further three times, while he remarkably nearly won a sixth Claret Jug back at Turnberry in 2009, at the age of 59, only to be edged out by Stewart Cink in a play-off.

Nicklaus would return the following year to win The Open for the third and final time, then bagged two more majors in 1980, while his final major triumph was fittingly at the Masters (1986). His record of 18 majors still stands as the pinnacle achievement in the sport.

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