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Duel at Turnberry was as good as it gets

July 12, 2009|Doug Ferguson | Ferguson writes for the Associated Press.

Even as he approaches his 60th birthday, Tom Watson rarely looks back. He is more interested in competing than relishing memories of his eight major championships, including his most famous victory of all at Turnberry in the 1977 British Open.

There was one time, however, when Watson couldn't escape history.

He returned to Turnberry in 2003 for the Senior British Open, and the television monitors in the clubhouse had continuous replays of his epic battle against Jack Nicklaus, now known as the "Duel in the Sun."

Watson would stop and say to himself, "Yeah, that was a pretty good shot," or "How did Jack do that?"

"It's a wonderful memory," he said. "There's not a question."

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Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson played together in the final round of the Masters this year, a pairing that brought Augusta National to life when each of them made a run at the leaders until they ran out of birdies or holes on which to make them.

Just imagine if they had been tied for the lead, not seven shots behind.

Consider how much noise they could have made had each scored matching 65s in the third round to essentially eliminate the rest of the field. Or the hysteria that would have followed if they had continued to match shot for shot, birdie for birdie, until the final hour.

That was Turnberry in 1977.

"You saw two of the great players of that era going toe to toe with each other," said Greg Norman, who was 22 that summer when he made his British Open debut and missed the cut.

The gallery often follows the last group down the fairway on the closing hole at golf's oldest championship. For this occasion, they spilled into the fairways midway through the round.

"The crowd was just going everywhere," Nicklaus said. "The ropes meant nothing, people meant nothing, we meant nothing. They were running down the fairways on every hole. They were supposed to be back behind the ropes, and we let it go for a while because we were basically . . . it was a match play event. And everybody was watching us."

Nicklaus and Watson finally stopped play and told officials they would not continue until the crowd got under control.

Indeed, there was nothing else to see that day. The next closest competitor was 10 shots behind.

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Nicklaus had already won 14 majors. He had outlasted rivalries with Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Johnny Miller. The latest challenge, however, was his toughest. Nicklaus learned plenty about Watson earlier that year at Augusta National, when he made a back-nine charge and Watson never blinked, holing a 20-foot birdie putt at the 17th that sewed up a two-shot victory in the Masters.

"I think both Watson and Trevino played me better than anybody else," Nicklaus said. "Both of them played me very well. And I got them a few times too. But I think Watson probably got me more than anybody. He got me in three majors that I finished second in."

Watson had already won four times that year when he arrived at Turnberry, and he felt he was the man to beat.

"I was at the top of my game at that point, hitting basically on all cylinders," Watson said. "Going into the tournament, I was in good form, and that was one of the few times in my career I really felt I had a great chance of winning the tournament. Sometimes there might be something a little bit off in your game, and that may give you a little bit of a question about, 'Do I have everything in order to win?'

"That week was one of those weeks where I really felt confident about my chances of winning."

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Both opened with a 68, two shots behind John Schroeder. Both followed with a 70 and trailed Roger Maltbie by one shot going into the third round.

"I was paired with Hubert Green in the third round, and I didn't play so hot," said Maltbie, who had a 72 to fall six shots behind. "I just remember it being an uncharacteristically hot week. I've never seen people get so sunburned my whole life."

He could not ignore the noise ahead of him, not with Nicklaus and Watson each shooting 65 to reduce everyone else to the B-Flight of this British Open.

To this day, there has never been a major with that kind of gap -- 10 shots -- from a duel at the top of the leaderboard to third place. The closest to it was the 1903 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, when Willie Anderson beat David Brown in a playoff, and Stewart Gardner was eight shots behind him. No one talks much about that major. Anderson shot 82 that day.

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Maltbie was six shots behind going into the final round, but not for long. He skied to an 80, and the only consolation was hearing history in the making behind him. The 72-hole record was shattered by eight shots that day, but for those who thought Turnberry was a pushover, consider that only one other player broke par for the championship -- Green, at one-under 279.

Nicklaus had a one-shot lead coming down the stretch and appeared to have control until Watson, fearless with the putter, rapped in a 60-foot birdie from the edge of the 15th green. They were tied, and remained that way after pars on the 16th.

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