History of The Open
Duel in the Sun
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Remembering Nicklaus vs Watson at The 106th Open
NicklausWatsonTurnberry

On Saturday July 9, 1977, Tom Watson turned to Jack Nicklaus and asked a simple question.

“This is what it’s all about isn’t it?”

“You bet it is,” the Golden Bear responded.

Even in the heat of the moment, amidst the blaze of battle, under the scorching sun, two of the game’s greats took a second to appreciate something extraordinary: The 106th Open, Turnberry 197 the “Duel in the Sun.”

The prelude

While Nicklaus arrived in Ayrshire that summer with his reputation already firmly ensconced, Watson’s was yet to be fully formed.

Open champion at Carnoustie in 1975 and Masters winner earlier in the season, his pedigree was in no doubt, but he was coming up against a 14-time major winner in Nicklaus.

But for a long time at Turnberry, he was not.

At the halfway stage, attentions were yet to be captured by what would later ensue, as Watson and Nicklaus found themselves jammed into a claustrophobic chasing pack, a shot behind sole leader Roger Maltbie at -3 on Thursday afternoon.

The Duel in the Sun

It was Friday, however, when the vaunted duo seemingly decided to leave their opponents behind.

Paired up for the third round, they went toe-to-toe, shooting five-under to open up a three-shot advantage over compatriot Ben Crenshaw, who himself was three ahead of the next-nearest.

The stage was set, then, for Saturday; their scorecards identical, their touch impeccable, their targets in sight – Watson and Nicklaus would be playing their own game down the home stretch.

Tit-for-tat

It was an iconic final round at the picturesque Scottish links - the scoreboard aside, the vision of a once-verdant Turnberry course had been scorched by an uncharacteristically dry summer. 

The grass instead was yellowed and hard, the rough wispy and straw-like; it was an image that only seemed to enrich the shootout narrative, with an errant tumbleweed surely ready to cross the path of the leading pair. 

Jack Nicklaus celebrates holing a putt at Turnberry

Add to that fact the atmosphere in Ayrshire on that Saturday: theatrical, gladiatorial, raucous.

Crowds dashed from fairway to green in order to get a glimpse of the battle for the ages that was beginning to play out, filling the undulations of the course like some sort of golfing murmuration. 

And the golf itself more than lived up to the scene, with Nicklaus taking the early initiative, birdying the 2nd and 4th as Watson dropped a shot to trail by three.

But the Huckleberry Dillinger – bedecked for the occasion in a striking green shirt and checked trousers – dug deep, picking up shots of his own at 5, 7 and 8 to make the turn just one behind Nicklaus and his iconic canary-yellow jumper.

And the quality only increased on the back nine, as Nicklaus drained a putt from 22 feet for birdie on the 12th.

Watson promptly one-upped his rival on the 15th with a monstrous 60-footer that would have gone well past had it not been on the perfect line, meaning that the duo would head to the final three holes locked level at -10. 

A conclusion for the ages

Nicklaus missed a five-footer for birdie on 16 with Watson picking up one of his own the next hole.

The destiny of the Claret Jug looked to have been decided when the Golden Bear slashed his drive on 18 to the cusp of the bushes, with Watson floating his second pin high and within two feet. 

Nicklaus vs Watson Duel in the Sun

But there was still time for one final moment of drama, as Nicklaus somehow dug out a beauty, finding the green before sinking a huge birdie putt for what was surely one of the greatest up-and-downs ever seen, greeted with appropriate rapture from the baying crowd.  

Watson was made, therefore, to play his; he needed birdie to confirm glory and seemed the most confident man in the world when he stepped up to address his ball. 

Never in doubt, in it dropped for his second Claret Jug as he signed his scorecard at -12 for an Open record.

It was no less than eight strokes better than any man had ever finished golf’s oldest major, with Watson’s advantage over third-place finisher Hubert Green a staggering ten shots. 

The 18th at Turnberry was promptly renamed “The Duel in the Sun” to mark the occasion, undoubtedly one of the greatest in the history of the sport.

And it was perhaps summed up best not by the victorious Watson, nor by the beaten Nicklaus, but by Green, who when asked for his thoughts on his opponents’ battle, quipped: “I won this golf tournament. I don't know what game those other two guys were playing.”