Jacklin fondly recalls the '69 Cup
Time provides perspective, but Jack Nicklaus didn't need 35 years to ponder the ramifications of his decision.
In an instant, Nicklaus took his ball out of the hole at the 1969 Ryder Cup, then picked up Tony Jacklin's marker, conceding a putt that is still talked about today.
That allowed the two major champions to tie the final match at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England, meaning the Ryder Cup would end in a 16-16 tie, the first draw in Ryder Cup history.
Nicklaus said recently that it was about more than winning.
"Jacklin had won the British Open, he was a national hero," Nicklaus said. "I felt like the U.S. was going to retain the Cup either way. I didn't think it was in the spirit of the game to make Jacklin have a chance to miss a 2-footer to lose the matches in front of his fans."
To this day, Jacklin is touched by the gesture.
"We had a battle all day, and it came down to an incredible moment," Jacklin said recently at Bradenton Country Club in Florida, where he lives on the 14th hole. "I was as much shocked as relieved. Prior to him conceding it, I was mentally preparing to putt. You have to be. In those days, I was a well-seasoned player. I was expecting to have to putt it. And when I didn't have to, I was very happy about that."
Thirty five years after the "Concession," it remains one of the defining moments of the Ryder Cup, a competition that will be renewed this week for the 35th time at Oakland Hills Country Club near Detroit.
Jacklin, 60, who went on to captain the European team four times, has now joined Nicklaus, 64, in designing and promoting a luxury golf course community near Sarasota, Fla. The project will feature a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course designed with Jacklin's help and more than 250 home sites in a gated community. The course is expected to open sometime next year, and Jacklin will have a home there.
The name of the enterprise: The Concession.
Although they were rivals that day at Royal Birkdale, Jacklin and Nicklaus had quickly become friends after meeting in 1966 at the World Cup in Japan. It didn't hurt that Jacklin emerged as one of the best players Britain had seen in decades. Born in Scunthorpe, England, Jacklin became the first British player to win a PGA Tour event at the 1968 Jacksonville Open.
A year later, he won the British Open at Royal Lytham, becoming the first Englishman since Max Faulkner in 1951 to hoist the Claret Jug. And he remains the last European golfer to win the U.S. Open, which he did in 1970 at Hazeltine National in Minnesota.
At the time, Jacklin was the biggest name in British sports, and couldn't walk down a London street without being recognized.
"In '69, I was on top of my game," he said. "I was the British Open champion. I was undefeated in that Ryder Cup. And our match came down to the final hole, with the outcome riding on it."
The Great Britain & Ireland team had little success in the Ryder Cup. After winning two of the first four matches that began in 1927, the team did not win again until 1957. The Americans kept rattling off victories, but for once, GB&I had a chance. And it all rested with Jacklin, who was only going up against the game's premier player in Nicklaus.
Both reached the final green in regulation, but Jacklin's birdie putt was longer, about 30 feet. He left himself with a 2-footer for par, then watched Nicklaus, who had a 15-footer for birdie.
"I remember thinking, "This is it. If it goes in .. Then he gave it such a rush," Jacklin said. "All of a sudden, he was on the defensive again, 4½ feet. I couldn't even contemplate taking a half (giving Nicklaus his putt). You have other teammates to think about. Everybody's worked hard for three days, sweated blood."
Nicklaus lined up his putt, stroked it in, and then immediately picked up Jacklin's marker, walked over and shook his hand.
"I was sure you would hole that putt," Nicklaus told Jacklin. "But I was not prepared to see you miss."
A Ryder Cup that had seen all 32 matches come down to the 17th hole was ending right there with both teams tied. Although a tie meant the Americans retained the Cup, it was decided that it would be shared for the next two years.
Jacklin remains amazed that Nicklaus had such presence of mind.
"Jack always saw the big picture. That was the whole thing, really. That was his forte, all through his life," Jacklin said. "In a pressure situation, he would always think clearer than the next guy. That's why he came out on top in those pressure situations. He knew if he could get into the final group on Sunday in a major, he would be thinking better than his adversary.
"There it was the same thing. God only knows what he must have been thinking. All of a sudden, he's got a 4½-footer to make, and if he misses his team loses the match. And then, in a split second he holes the putt, and he's picking his ball out of the ball, and he picks my marker up at the same time.
"So he's run it all through his mind. He must have. But it was a spontaneous gesture."
Not everybody thought it was so swell. Several of Nicklaus' teammates grumbled about him conceding such an important putt. Even U.S. Ryder Cup team captain Sam Snead was miffed.
"All the boys thought it was ridiculous to give him that putt," Snead said later. "We went over there to win, not to be good ol' boys."
Jacklin said that despite the one-sidedness of the matches at the time, the competitiveness of the players was very keen.
"Our captain was Eric Brown, a Scot. He was labeled the fiery Scott," Jacklin said. "One of the things he said early that week to us as a team was, "If their ball goes in the rough, you don't help 'em look for it.' I mean, give me a break. I was full-time on the American tour. All these guys were my pals. There was no way that was happening. So that was Brown's attitude.
"And Snead, he was an ornery old devil. He didn't give much away. He was a tough hombre, anybody who played with him will tell you that. He was tough as hell. And there were a few mean-spirited individuals on that American team ... 'What they hell did he do that for?' Of course, they wouldn't say it to Jack."
Despite the boost the Concession gave to the Ryder Cup, the Great Britain team continued to lose. Players from continental Europe were added for the 1979 matches, but the results didn't change. Not until Jacklin became captain in 1983 at Palm Beach Gardens did the Ryder Cup become competitive.
Jacklin captained the team four times -- twice against Nicklaus-captained U.S. teams -- winning twice, losing once and tying in 1989, which meant Europe kept the Cup because it had won in 1987. Now, the Ryder Cup is nearly too close to call, every year.
The truth, all these years later Jacklin knows he could have made the putt, a 2-footer that only carried the weight of all of Great Britain & Ireland despite its relatively short distance.
But would he have made it?
"Putting is easy, circumstances are the key. It's always been that way," Jacklin said. "That's why a guy sitting in his armchair at any given event can say, 'I could have made that.' Of course he could. But could you make it with so much at stake?"
Jack Nicklaus didn't want to find out.
Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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