"You can see yourself going into the history books, as the man who had only to get down in two putts to win the open, but took three and lost in the playoff.”
It was an outcome prophesied by Henry Longhurst. As Doug Sanders played his approach shot to the 72nd green at St Andrews, the great commentator knew it wouldn’t be the last hole of The 99th Open.
The American was bidding for his first ever major and led Jack Nicklaus by one with seemingly two shots left to play on the par four. Sanders took three though, as he saw his lead combust in the blink of an eye.
The pair then competed in The Open’s first 18-hole playoff the next day, where the Golden Bear took victory in one of the most dramatic finishes in Championship history to claim his eighth major success.
If it softens the blow in any kind of way for Sanders, he wasn’t the only man to suffer a collapse in The 99th Open.
In all of the drama surrounding Sanders on the 18th hole on the Old Course, Lee Trevino’s decline on day four seems to go under the radar somewhat.
Two consecutive rounds of 68 saw Super Mex eight-under heading into round three, before an even par round on the Friday put him two shots ahead with 18 holes left to play.
But a dismal Saturday saw Trevino finish out of contention come the end of the day’s play, meaning he, like the rest of us, was a mere spectator to the drama that was to unfold.
Nicklaus and Sanders were neck and neck for the majority of the first three days, with both starting the final round two shots behind Trevino on six under.
Things remained just as tight heading into the final hole of the tournament, as Sanders rescued a ball from the bunker on the 17th to maintain his one-shot lead.
The 18th – Part One
While Sanders was sorting himself out in the sand, Nicklaus was trying to pile on the pressure on the 18th, but missed a mid-range putt to level the scores.
From then on, the last hole should have been a mere procession for Sanders, who needed nothing more than a four to claim a maiden major triumph.
After coming off the tee in an almost perfect position, it looked to all the world that it would be a new name on the Claret Jug as the engraver began sharpening his etching tool.
But from 74 yards away from the pin, the then 46-year-old overhit his approach to see the ball land at the back of the green. From there, he knew that two putts would crown him Champion Golfer of the Year.
The first was perfect, leaving a three-footer to claim the title. The Georgian native stepped up, placed his feet and got ready to lap up the applause. But something wasn’t right.
“I walked up to my ball, looked down at the line and saw what I thought was a pebble. I bent over to get it but it wasn’t a pebble, it was just where the sun had burned the grass,” Sanders said.
‘Pebble’ removed, he got ready again, this time a little quicker. A bit too hasty it turned out, and the white sphere went rolling past the hole, Sanders almost running after it as it trundled past.
A dropped shot meant Sanders finished all-square with Nicklaus after 72 holes, meaning another 18 followed on the Sunday to decide the victor.
The 18th – Part Two
For the golf fanatics it was the perfect scenario: one on one, nail biting action over 18 holes of golf, the first ever full-course playoff in the history of The Open.
The trials and tribulations of the last 24 hours seemed to have caught up with Sanders in the early stages, as Nicklaus dragged himself into a four shot lead after 13 holes.
The writing looked to be on the wall at that point, but two birdies from Sanders and a bogey from Nicklaus meant the lead was only one at the last, as the Peacock of the Fairways returned to the scene of his capitulation.
Then, in one of the most iconic images of The Open, Nicklaus removed his jumper as he approached the 18th tee. The yellow garment was draped over his shoulders before being exchanged for a driver by caddie Angelo Argea.
The change of outfit was said to open his shoulders more, and what a result it had, with the blistering tee-shot launching all of 360 yards to the green.
Nobody does that at the Home of Golf, but Nicklaus did - now he had to follow it up. With Sanders close to the pin in two, only a birdie would win it.
And that’s exactly what Nicklaus got, finishing with a chip and short putt almost exactly like the one his opponent had missed the day before, just to kick the man while he was down.
The Golden Bear rarely showed emotion on the golf course, it was one of the things that made him the player he was, but even he couldn’t hide his ecstasy when that putt sank into the cup.
His putter was flung into the air in celebration as he finally had his victory at St Andrews.
So near but yet so far
Nicklaus once said: “If you’re going to be a player people will remember, you have to win The Open at St Andrews,” but in this case, both winner and loser will always have a place in history.
The 18-time major champion will forever be remembered as one of the game’s greatest, although this one may not have been so much him winning as Sanders losing.
Sanders would never go onto win a major in his career, having had a number of chances that had escaped him, but none more so than on that windy day in Fife - something that haunted him forever.
“It doesn’t hurt much anymore. These days I can go a full five minutes without thinking about it,” he said when asked about it 30 years later in 2000.