Skip to main content
The 150th Open

Decades of The Open


The 1970s

Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson following the Duel in the Sun

Everything has led to this.

Our Decades of The Open series is celebrating the fascinating journey of golf and its original Championship, as we move ever closer to The 150th Open at St Andrews in July.

You can read our previous Decades of The Open articles via the links below.

1860s | 1870s | 1880s | 1890s | 1900s | 1910s | 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s

Our latest article focuses on the 1970s, a golden era for the Championship that featured wins for a host of all-time greats.


Jack’s St Andrews double

Already a Champion Golfer following his win at Muirfield in 1966, Jack Nicklaus demonstrated extraordinary consistency at The Open throughout the 1970s.

In the face of stern competition, the Golden Bear claimed a top-five finish in every single Open during the decade, recording two victories, four runner-up finishes, two placings of third, one fourth and one fifth.

Nicklaus’ two successes in this period each came at St Andrews. In 1970 he famously capitalised after Doug Sanders had missed a short putt to seal victory on the final green, edging out his fellow American in an 18-hole play-off the following day.

Doug Sanders and Jack Nicklaus in their play-off at The Open in 1970

By the time The Open was next played over the Old Course in 1978 there was talk of Nicklaus, who had gone almost three years without adding to his 14 Major Championship wins, potentially being past his best. However, he proved his critics wrong in style by again prevailing at the Home of Golf.

Nicklaus trailed unheralded New Zealander Simon Owen with three holes to play, but then finished strongly to win by two as Owen shared second with Raymond Floyd, Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw.


Contrasting wins for Trevino

Lee Trevino had led The Open through 54 holes in 1970 before falling away in the final round.

Determined to make amends for that missed opportunity, he went on to win the next two editions of the Championship, getting the better of thrilling duels with Lu Liang-Huan and Tony Jacklin.

Lu trailed Trevino by six with nine holes to play at Royal Birkdale in 1971, but the former cut that advantage to a single shot with the aid of a double-bogey for the leader on the penultimate hole.

More drama followed as Lu struck a spectator on the head with his second shot at 18. He nevertheless closed with a birdie, but Trevino matched him to seal victory.

If Trevino came close to throwing away a dominant position at Birkdale, it was a completely different story at Muirfield 12 months later as he delivered a hammer blow to Jacklin just when it looked like the Englishman would claim a second Open title.

After finishing his third round with five successive birdies, including two hole-outs from off the green, Trevino chipped in again on the 71st hole to save an unlikely par five.

The shot clearly unsettled Jacklin, who three-putted from 18 feet to fall one behind his rival before also bogeying the last to finish third behind Trevino and Nicklaus.

By his own admission, Jacklin was never quite the same player ever again.


The enduring class of Gary Player

Just three men have won The Open in three different decades.

J.H. Taylor and Harry Vardon, two members of The Great Triumvirate, each achieved the feat between 1894 and 1913, but the only player to do so since is Gary Player.

At the age of 38, Player followed up his previous wins in 1959 and 1968 with a dominant display at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1974.

Even three bogeys in the last four holes – and the bizarre inconvenience of needing to putt left-handed from up against the clubhouse wall at the 18th – did not threaten to stop Player from triumphing as he finished four clear of Peter Oosterhuis.

Gary Player with the Claret Jug after winning The Open in 1974

Wonderful Watson makes his mark

It may seem remarkable now, but when Tom Watson made his Open debut in 1975, there were doubts over his ability to close out Major Championships.

The Kansas City native had failed to convert leads into wins at successive U.S. Opens, but he came good when it mattered at Carnoustie, holing a 15-foot putt on the 72nd hole that ultimately earned him a place in an 18-hole play-off with Jack Newton.

Watson won by a single stroke in extra holes, beginning a golden era that would see him win five Opens in nine years.

His second victory came two years later at one of the most memorable Championships in history, as both he and Jack Nicklaus hit rare heights in the Duel in the Sun at Turnberry.

Watson and Nicklaus separated themselves from the rest of the field with some extraordinary play over the final 36 holes. Back-to-back 65s gave Watson victory by a shot, while Nicklaus, who went 65-66 over the weekend, finished 10 shots clear of the third-placed Hubert Green.


A star is born

The Open of 1979 delivered a first winner from continental Europe since Arnaud Massy’s ground-breaking triumph 72 years earlier, as Seve Ballesteros thrilled the galleries on his way to lifting the Claret Jug at the age of 22.

Ballesteros would, of course, become famed for his incredible powers of recovery and they were certainly on full show as he overcame a series of wayward drives to win by three shots at Royal Lytham & St Annes.

Although his success in 1979 made him the youngest Champion Golfer of the 21st century, Seve had come to prominence in The Open three years earlier as a teenager, when he sensationally led after 18, 36 and 54 holes at Royal Birkdale.

Johnny Miller proved a class apart on the final day on that occasion in 1976, sweeping to victory with a closing 66, but Ballesteros’ emergence was the story of the Championship and it would not be long before the Spaniard provided much more delight to fans of The Open.


Big names flourish throughout the decade

It can be argued that no decade in Open history has produced a higher pedigree of winners than the 1970s.

The seven men who lifted the Claret Jug in the 70s – Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller and Seve Balllesteros - would end their respective careers with a combined haul of 49 Major Championship wins.

Weiskopf was the only one to not claim multiple Major victories, but the four-time Masters runner-up was unquestionably the hottest player in the world in 1973, the year of his Open triumph.

Weiskopf’s success at Troon was one of five wins in the space of 10 weeks for the tall American and he triumphed in style by going wire-to-wire with a record-equalling total of 276.

Tom Weiskopf is the only Champion Golfer (1973) to go wire-to-wire at Royal Troon.

The Champion Golfers of the 1970s

1970, St Andrews – Jack Nicklaus

1971, Royal Birkdale – Lee Trevino

1972, Muirfield – Lee Trevino

1973, Troon – Tom Weiskopf

1974, Royal Lytham & St Annes – Gary Player

1975, Carnoustie – Tom Watson

1976, Royal Birkdale – Johnny Miller

1977, Turnberry – Tom Watson

1978, St Andrews – Jack Nicklaus

1979, Royal Lytham & St Annes – Seve Ballesteros


Did You Know?

The record for the lowest 72-hole score at The Open was improved upon by an unprecedented margin at Turnberry in 1977 as Tom Watson finished on 268, beating the mark of Arnold Palmer and Tom Weiskopf by eight strokes. In losing to Watson by just a single stroke, Jack Nicklaus shaved seven shots off the previous record himself, but to no avail.

Tom Watson celebrates winning The Open in 1977

Average age of Champion Golfers in the 1970s: 30

Nationalities of Champion Golfers in the 1970s: Five American (Nicklaus, Trevino, Weiskopf, Watson, Miller), one South African (Player), one Spaniard (Ballesteros).

More Decades of The Open articles