Duel in the Sun: Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in the Battle of Turnberry

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9780743203104: Duel in the Sun: Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in the Battle of Turnberry

An account of the 1977 British Open, during which young talent Tom Watson defeated the legendary Jack Nicklaus, traces the competition's history and offers portraits of the two competitors.

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About the Author:

Michael Corcoran is the author or coauthor of seven books, including The PGA Tour Complete Book of Golf. He lives in Ottsville, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

In the summer of 1977, the eight best golfers in the world were all veteran American players. Jack Nicklaus was the most accomplished player and the biggest star among a murderer's row that included Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf, Johnny Miller, Raymond Floyd, Hubert Green, Hale Irwin, and Tom Watson. When these eight players teed it up at the Open Championship at Turnberry in southwest Scotland during the first full week of July that year, they were joined by an emerging threesome of extraordinary talent that would one day rise to eminence: nineteen-year-old Nick Faldo of England, twenty-year-old Severiano Ballesteros of Spain, and twenty-two-year-old Greg Norman of Australia. The scions of America's championship golf tradition, led by twenty-three-year-old Jerry Pate and twenty-five-year-old Ben Crenshaw, were also on hand at the Turnberry Hotel that week to compete in the 106th playing of the Open Championship. It was the first time that Turnberry had hosted the Open.

There were, of course, other big-name golfers at Turnberry, including the biggest name of them all. At age forty-seven, Arnold Palmer's best days as a player were behind him, but he was still the most recognizable golfer in the world. He was alone among the U.S. players in remembering and experiencing a time not even twenty years before when America's best golfers were reluctant to play in the Open. Some were undoubtedly too small-minded to grasp the significance of competing in the Open, a condition that was aggravated by the small amount of prize money available. Others shrunk from the challenge simply because of the arduous journey to Britain and the fact that, having made the journey, they would still have to survive two qualifying rounds before they even got to play in the championship proper. Still another obstacle in the days before widespread and convenient transatlantic air service was the proximity on the calendar of the U.S. PGA Championship to the Open -- the two were usually held within a week or two of each other.

Arnold Palmer went to Scotland to compete in the Open for the first time in 1960, and it would be inaccurate to say that America's undivided attention was focused on him when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean in late June. The Cold War, which had shown signs of reduced tension between the U.S. and Soviet Russia early in the year, had turned more bitter than ever in May when CIA-employed Gary Powers was shot down over Russia in his U-2 spy plane. It was also a presidential election year, and in the summertime the campaign of the young Irish Catholic senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, was gaining momentum. Sports fans in the States, however, had very little to distract their interest in Palmer's trip to the Open; his timing was just right. When the Olympics started in late August, Americans would be enthralled by the triumphs of Al Oerter, Rafer Johnson, and a skinny light-heavyweight boxer from Louisville, Kentucky, named Cassius Clay. When the World Series was played in the fall, it would feature the New York Yankees for the twenty-fifth time since 1920, led by American League MVP Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. Despite their big name players, the Yankees lost in the seventh game when Pittsburgh's Bill Mazeroski slugged a ninth-inning home run. A few months after that, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik would sit on top of Green Bay running back Jim Taylor as the clock ran out in the NFL Championship Game at the University of Pennsylvania's Franklin Field. In the sports championship void of high summer, however, Palmer was the biggest news in American sports. When he traveled first to Ireland to play in a tournament called the Canada Cup, and then on to St. Andrews for the Open, the sporting public's interest went along with him.

Palmer's professional contemporaries in America at the time certainly took note of his trip, and since he had been beating their brains out all year, were probably glad to hear he wouldn't be around for a few weeks. With the exception of Palmer, top-level American professional golfers in 1960 thought all the talk of the history surrounding the Open Championship and the significance of winning it was just so much flapdoodle when you got right down to it. American players reasoned that a trip to the Open was a money-losing proposition even if they won top prize (which in 1960 was £1,250, or $3,500), and cited this as the reason they stayed home instead of trekking to Great Britain to try to win the game's grandest championship. Henry Longhurst, the brilliant English writer, didn't hold it against them. "With so much money at stake at home," wrote Longhurst in 1959, "the leading American professionals no longer venture across the Atlantic as [Walter] Hagen and [Gene] Sarazen did in the golden age of golf. Much as we may regret it in Britain, we can hardly blame them, yet I venture to believe that they lose something by not coming at least once, and that even [Ben] Hogan felt that the British Open added a sense of completeness to his career."

Palmer's bid for the Open title at St. Andrews in 1960 would be only the fourth by a leading American professional at the top of his game since the championship resumed after World War II. Frank Stranahan, an American amateur and heir to the Champion spark plug fortune, finished as the runner-up in the 1947 and 1953 Opens and played in the tournament regularly during the postwar years. Sam Snead, from West Virginia, won the first Open played after the war, in 1946 at St. Andrews, and then not a peep was heard from America's best professionals until 1953, when Texan Ben Hogan arrived to play in his one and only Open at Carnoustie on Scotland's east coast. Hogan won, adding the Open to the Masters and U.S. Open titles he won earlier in the year. He was the only player to win three professional majors in a single season until Tiger Woods matched the feat forty-seven years later. The Scots admired Hogan's single-mindedness, but quickly realized he lacked a warm side in public, dubbing him "the Wee Ice Mon."

During the postwar years, appearances by Americans were so rare that it was news during the 1951 Open that an American caddied in the tournament. His name was Bob Carlsson, and he wore a University of California sweatshirt while working the bag for K.E. Enderby. In 1955, the top American finisher was Ed Furgol, who had won the 1954 U.S. Open. Furgol finished eleven shots behind the winner, Australian Peter Thomson, and was joined in the field by Americans Johnny Bulla and Byron Nelson, who had by then retired from competitive golf. In 1956, the Open was played in England and Snead and Hogan were there just prior to the championship to play in the Canada Cup. Neither bothered to play in the Open. American Cary Middlecoff made the trip in 1957, one year after winning his second U.S. Open, but in 1958 the only recognizable American face at the Open belonged to fifty-six-year-old Gene Sarazen, who won the championship in 1932.

The 1959 Open was played near Edinburgh at a golf course called Muirfield, the home course of the oldest golf club in the world, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, established in 1744. (It is worth noting here that a golf club is a group of people -- members -- and the golf course is the playing field used by the members of the club.) Despite the venerable site, not a single American professional showed up. The top golfers from the rest of the world were there, however: Fred Daly from Ireland; Bobby Locke and Gary Player from South Africa; Antonio Cerda and Roberto De Vicenzo from Argentina; Dai Rees from Wales; Flory Van Donck from Belgium; Kel Nagle and Peter Thomson from Australia, who found the excuse of inadequate prize money a poor reason for not playing in the Open. "I know I was making money, or I wouldn't have been going," said Thomson. "The first prize I won at the Open was £750. You could buy a reasonable house for that amount in those days. There was plenty of money to be made out of winning the Open Championship, but there wasn't much to be made by coming in second. Anyone who went to the Open worried about not getting their money back was probably better off out of it anyway."

Fifty years after he made his first trip to Britain in 1951, Peter Thomson recalled that "it took three days because a single air crew took the plane the whole way, and they had to rest every night. After leaving Australia, we stopped the first night in Singapore. The next night was spent in Karachi, and on the third night we finally made it to London. That was if the plane didn't break down, of course. In those days there were frequent breakdowns. It was a great adventure for me. I was a young man on a fact-finding mission." Thomson made regular trips to compete in the U.S. Open as well.

The Argentine De Vicenzo on occasion endured even more than Thomson to play in the old championship. "It is not so easy to get there," said De Vicenzo in broken English fifty-two years after he first made the trip. "I play for first time in 1948 and finish pretty good behind Henry Cotton. I keep this in mind and come back next year and I did good again. Then I decide to play every year. One year, I think it was 1949, I think I cannot go because I do not have the money to go on the plane. Some fellow at a boat company give me a free ticket to go, and it took seventeen days to get to England. When I woke up in Liverpool, I walk off the ship looking like a lost golf player."

South African Gary Player won the 1959 Open at Muirfield, but the talk of the town early in the week was "Papwa" Sewsunker Sewgolum, an Indian-born man playing out of Durban, South Africa, who shot a seventy-one in the qualifying rounds using a cross-handed grip. (For a right-handed player, which Sewgolum was, that meant placing his left hand lower on the club, beneath his right hand.) A black South African named Edward Johnson-Sedibe also tried to qualify to play at Muirfield. He borrowed a set of clubs, turned in a score of eighty-eight in the qualifying and told anyone who listened that he liked being there so much that he planned on sticking around, especially if someone would give him a ride to London. The journey from South Africa to Edinburgh was certainly more daunting and expensive than a trip to the same destination from New York, and if Johnson-Sedibe, a player who didn't even have his own clubs, understood what just having a chance to compete in the Open should mean to anyone who loved the game, were America's best players simply myopic in completely dismissing the Open?

The easy answer to that question is yes. The one thing American professionals could see clearly was the dollar sign. Palmer had won $14,400 when he won the U.S. Open in June 1960, roughly four times more than he would get if he won at St. Andrews. The prize money had never been big in the Open, but the lack of it hadn't deterred adventurous American professionals like Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen from going to Britain in the 1920s and '30s to see how they stacked up against the rest of the world. Compared to the players who came before them, American tour players in 1960 were living large. Writing in the May 2, 1960, issue of Sports Illustrated, Herbert Warren Wind noted that the young Americans, led by Palmer, "were fortunate in hitting the pro ranks at the golden moment when purses were reaching new highs, and endorsements and promotions frequently doubled what they earned in prize money." Wind, a keen observer of the game and its trends who also wrote about golf for many years for The New Yorker, was dead on the mark. Even players who completely lacked Palmer's appeal were making endorsement income. The magazine advertisements of the time support Wind's observation: Bob Goalby Autographed Clubs by Rawlings. More and more the choice of the young pro; Dow Finsterwald won the Los Angeles Open in Munsingwear. Winners wear Grand Slam Golf Shirts by Munsingwear. Don January won the Tucson Open wearing Munsingwear, too. A golf ball advertisement for U.S. Royal golf balls summed things up nicely. Beneath photos of Ken Venturi, Fred Hawkins, Al Besselink, Bill Collins, and Howie Johnson, the copy reads: Major tournament winners say: "You're longer off the tee with U.S. Royal...the ball with H.I.V.!" Several decades before the world was familiar with the AIDS virus, "the ball with H.I.V." was not the shocking thing about the advertisement (it stood for "high initial velocity"). What was astonishing was that as of 1960 none of those five men had won a professional golf championship of historic significance. The money they made from these endorsements certainly paled in comparison to the bounty reaped by current-day professionals, but it was income nonetheless.

America's leading golfers in 1960 were not a destitute lot who couldn't afford a trip to the Open. The median annual family income in America in the mid-1950s was $5,657. From 1949 to 1959 the lowest amount won by the leading money winner on the American golf tour was $26,088.83 by Sam Snead in 1951. By 1954, Bob Toski had more than doubled that total by winning $65,819.81. Palmer led the list in 1958 with $42,607.50. Even considering the expense of traveling to play on the American tour, the top money earners could have gone to the Open with some degree of regularity if they had any desire to prove they were the best in the world, even if it meant stretching the family finances and even if they made the trip only every other year. Where was the desire to prove oneself against the best that all professional athletes claim burns deep within? Moreover, what happened to the sense of adventure that Americans claim is part of their national heritage?

The reasons American players stayed away from the Open had to be deeper than money, and they were. The United States had emerged from World War II as the wealthiest and most advanced nation in the world in terms of technology and creature comforts. It never took much for Americans to assume that anything at home was better than what the rest of the world had, and during the postwar Eisenhower years this feeling ran deeper than ever. (Incidentally, Ike himself took to the links of Scotland. Grateful for his wartime service, the British had given him the run of the joint at Culzean Castle, just down the road from Turnberry. He played more than a few rounds at Turnberry.) "In those days," said Bob Toski nearly fifty years after he led American money winners, "if you were tops in America, you were tops in the world. The strength of the foreign players was nothing like it is today. I didn't have anything to prove by going over there. Even if I won, it wouldn't have covered the expense involved." For Toski and his fellow American professionals, it was easy to feel justified in their belief that professional golf in the U.S. was the game at its highest level. American teams regularly routed those from Great Britain during the biennial Ryder Cup competition, and non-American players rarely won significant tournaments in the U.S.

There were other reasons the Open did not appeal to American players. The golf courses used for the Open were not watered except when it rained, and this meant that the ball could take unpredictable bounces when it landed. At ...

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