Turnberry identifies game's top player

7/13/2009 - Golf Tom Watson Jack Nicklaus + more

TURNBERRY, Scotland -- In the case of the Open Championship at Turnberry, less is obviously more. How else do you explain the least-used venue in the rota producing the top player as champion every time?

Perhaps it is coincidence, but the relatively "new" links course on Scotland's Ayrshire Coast has been huge on drama and just as large when it comes to the game's best players of the era claiming the Claret Jug.

Tom Watson, Greg Norman and Nick Price are the names etched on the old trophy when it was played at this scenic venue, all considered No. 1 in the game at the time of their victories. If Tiger Woods comes through this week when the 138th Open Championship returns to Turnberry for just the fourth time -- and first since 1994 -- we know we're on to something.

When Turnberry first appeared on the Open schedule in 1977, the game's oldest tournament was making a rare departure from protocol. The Open was typically played at 100-year-old-plus links courses, but Turnberry was relatively new by such standards, with the Ailsa course opened in 1951. And for the first time since the Open went to Royal Birkdale in 1954, it was being played at a new site.

If there were any fears about the venue's viability, they were quickly erased as Watson and Jack Nicklaus surged into contention. They both opened the tournament with 68s to trail first-round leader John Schroeder by 2 shots. Identical 70s in the second round put them a stroke behind Roger Maltbie -- and paired together for the third round.

And a mini-trend was developing: Watson's ability to go head-to-head with the Golden Bear, and beat him. He did it a few months prior to capture his first Masters by 2 strokes over Nicklaus.

"My mindset was if I was going to realize the dream of being the best player, I was going to have to beat the best player," said Watson, 59, who will compete in his 32nd Open this week, including his fourth at Turnberry. "But I played under less pressure than Jack did. People were expecting him to win. People were not expecting me to win.

"But that's where I wanted to be. I wanted to beat the best. Jack beat me more times than I beat him over the course of our careers, no question about that. But I beat him in a couple of pretty good contests, I would say."

Said Nicklaus: "That's the best tournament I played and lost. That would be a pretty good assessment."

This one was considered one of the game's all-time epics. Dubbed the "Duel in the Sun," because of the warm, sunny temperatures, Watson, then 27, and Nicklaus, then 37, matched 65s in the third round to remain tied, leaving almost everyone else in the dust that had become Turnberry.

And it wasn't as if a bunch of nobodies trailed. The likes of '77 U.S. Open champion Hubert Green finished third. Lee Trevino, who shot the same 68-70 in the first two rounds, was also in the mix, as was Ben Crenshaw. Arnold Palmer finished seventh, Ray Floyd eighth and Johnny Miller tied for ninth.

But they couldn't keep up with Watson and Nicklaus, who led by 3 strokes over Crenshaw entering the final round and never looked back.

"It was amazing what they were doing," Crenshaw recalled. "You could hear these big cheers all across the course. Both of them were on, Tom especially."

"You really didn't have to look at the scoreboard after about the first two or three holes of the final round," Watson said. "I made three birdies and by No. 8 it was on. It was just Jack and me. No more scoreboard watching. I had the challenge right in front of me, or behind me, as fate would have it."

The buzz was so great, the commotion so heightened, that Nicklaus and Watson agreed to stop on the ninth fairway until tournament officials could get the crowd under control.

Watson bogeyed the hole, and then a Nicklaus birdie gave him a 2-shot advantage at the 12th. A Watson birdie at the 13th narrowed the gap to 1, but Nicklaus appeared to have the upper hand when he hit his approach at the par-3 15th to 20 feet. Watson was in the left fringe, much farther away.

But Watson rolled in the 60-footer, Nicklaus missed, and they were tied with three holes to go. Still tied heading to the par-5 17th, Watson knocked his second shot on the green in two to 25 feet, and 2-putted for birdie. Nicklaus missed the green, but chipped to 5 feet -- and the putt failed to drop, Nicklaus misreading it after watching Watson's birdie putt on a similar line.

All these years later, Nicklaus laments the second shot.

"I hit a 4-iron, didn't hit it very well," said Nicklaus, now 69. "I left it short, pitched up to about 5 feet and missed the putt. If I'd have hit a good second shot I'd have been up there with a good chance for eagle."

Knowing he needed a birdie at the 18th, Nicklaus hit a driver as hard as he could, pushing it nearly into an unplayable lie in the gorse. The tournament appeared over, but Nicklaus managed to hit the shot out, to the edge of the green.

"I'll never forget what happened afterward," Nicklaus said. "It was Scottish custom for good luck to throw a pile of coins under that bush, in the divot, wishing me good luck. That was really neat."

But the luck would run out. Watson hit his approach to 2 feet, and while Nicklaus miraculously holed his long birdie putt -- forcing Watson to make -- it wasn't enough.

Watson had shot 65, Nicklaus 66.

Watson had won by 1 shot, with Green 10 strokes behind Nicklaus, who for the sixth time had finished second at the Open and for the second time that year finished runner-up to Watson in a major.

"Both Watson and Trevino played me better than anyone else, probably Watson more than anything," Nicklaus said. "They were both good competitors and good players. Neither one of them was scared of me, neither one of them was worried about me. They played their own game, which is what you're supposed to do."

For Nicklaus, it is amazing to think what could have been, how many more majors he could have added to his record 18. The British Open is a prime example. He had three victories but seven runner-up finishes. Starting in 1963, Nicklaus went 3-2-T12-1-2-T2-T6-1-T5-2-4-3-T3-T2-2-1-T4-T16-2. That's a 19-year stretch in which Nicklaus had three victories and a remarkable 16 top-five finishes.

"Jack was the most gracious competitor I've ever seen in the throes of defeat," Watson said "I've never seen somebody be able to take defeat and give credit to the player, even though he's hurting inside, give credit to the player who beat him. And he did that when we walked off the 18th green and he put his arm around me, and he about broke my neck, he squeezed me so hard, he said, 'Tom, I gave it my best shot but it wasn't good enough. Congratulations.'"

For Watson, it was just the beginning, really. He had amazingly won his first British Open in his first attempt in 1975 at Carnoustie, and would go on to win a total of five -- all at different venues: Carnoustie (where Nicklaus tied for third, missing a playoff by a stroke), Turnberry, Muirfield (1980), Royal Troon (1982) and Royal Birkdale (1983).

It wasn't the last time Watson would get Nicklaus, either. He famously defeated the Golden Bear to win his only U.S. Open in 1982 at Pebble Beach when he holed a pitch shot on the 71st hole.

Although the British Open at the time did not count as a PGA Tour event (it is now counted as an official victory), 1977 was the year Watson established himself as the game's top player. He won five times that year, had 17 top-10 finishes and led the money list for the first of four straight years and five times overall.

"It's past, but it's a wonderful memory, there's not a question," Watson said. "And it's a wonderful time to go back and relive that, and our primary objective [this week] is to go play well enough to compete against the kids."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.