Lee Trevino was the defending champion when he arrived at Muirfield to play in the 1972 Open Championship. The charismatic Mexican had won both The Open and the US Open in 1971 but any thoughts that he might be installed as favourite for the 101st playing of the world’s oldest golf championship had been dispelled by the form Jack Nicklaus had displayed at the start of 1972 season.
The Golden Bear had won both The Masters and the US Open earlier that year so when he arrived in the East Coast of Scotland a full week ahead of the Championship he was immediately installed as a 9 to 4 favourite to complete the third leg of the Grand Slam and to emulate the same feat Ben Hogan had accomplished 19 years before.
There was much talk of Nicklaus completing all four legs of the Grand Slam that summer and his supporters became even more vocal when their hero carded rounds of 70 and 72 to tie Gary Player, Johnny Miller, Peter Townsend, Peter Tupling and Doug Sanders just one shot behind leaders Trevino and Tony Jacklin at the halfway stage.
Miller had scored a brilliant course record 66 in the second round but the following day it was Trevino who supplied the fireworks as Nicklaus continued to play conservative golf on the course where he had won his first Open title some six years before.
Trevino was to match Miller’s record 66 that afternoon with an inward half of 30 that was constructed with scores of 444, 333, 243 and was highlighted by an outrageous piece of fortune on the par-3 16th hole where he thinned a shot out of a greenside bunker only to see it hit halfway up the flagstick and cannon into the hole.
The golfer himself admitted that astonishing piece of luck saved him two or three shots and he was to cap his round by holing a chip from off the back of the 18th green to take a one shot lead over playing partner Tony Jacklin on 207. Under the circumstance’s the Englishman’s 67 was a remarkable effort although he was finally to wilt the following day when Trevino canned another chip from off the green on the 71st hole. On that occasion, the shot was thinned again and it knocked the stuffing out of Jacklin. He took four strokes to get down from just off the edge of the green to drop into third place on 280 and was never a serious contender in a Major again.
Earlier this season Jacklin admitted his loss to Trevino had inflicted lasting damage.
“I haven’t been to Muirfield for a long time but you don’t have to remind me what happened there. I remember every shot,” he told Golf World magazine. “It was one of the most amazing chipping performances I have ever seen and obviously I was up against it. A couple of them were absolute flukes. Something happened to me that week. I don’t know what it was but it broke my spirit in the Major Championships and changed my outlook to some degree.”
Meanwhile, Nicklaus had carded a somewhat lacklustre 71 to stand six strokes behind Trevino with 18 holes to go but you do not go on to win a total of 18 Majors without a fierce competitive spirit and six birdies in his opening 11 holes the following day gave him the lead. “Look at that,” Trevino said to Jacklin. “Jack’s gone crazy. We’re out here beating each other to death and that son of a gun has caught and passed us.”
What followed was a catalogue of missed chances as far as Nicklaus was concerned. He had birdie opportunities on the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th but spilled them all and when Trevino birdied the 11th and Jacklin did the same on the 14th there was a three way tie for the lead.
Nicklaus dropped his only shot of the day when he missed the green on the par-3 16th and then failed to get a birdie on the par-5 17th but with the benefit of hindsight it was Trevino’s outrageous holed pitch for a five on the 17th that sealed his second successive Open title and ended his rival’s hopes of completing the Grand Slam.
No further miracles were required. Trevino split the fairway on the 18th hole, fired his approach to ten feet and then calmly two-putted to claim a one shot victory on 279.
After collecting a first place cheque for £5,500, and alluding to his good fortune by suggesting “God was a Mexican”, he launched into a heart-felt tribute to the man who he had just consigned to second place.
“I hope Jack wins the PGA,” he said. “Then I’ll be remembered as the man who stopped the Grand Slam.
“It’s possible to beat Jack but nobody is in his class.”