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History of The Open

'Winners don't crumble'


'DUEL' film celebrates the greatest showdown of them all

Animated versions of Jack Nicklaus (left) and Tom Watson during The Open in 1977

Every sport has that one encounter that stands out from all the others.

In boxing it’s the ‘Rumble In The Jungle’, the epic heavyweight clash between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974.

Snooker legends Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor treated 18.5 million late-night TV viewers to the infamous ‘black-ball final’ at The Crucible in 1985.

And the Wimbledon men’s singles final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe in 1980 was so monumental it has since been made into a movie.

In golf, that one encounter is a contest that will be spoken about forever, a head-to-head that transcends the sport; the Duel in the Sun.

This epic showdown between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson in The Open Championship of 1977 is a battle that may never be equalled and will always be revered.

In the build-up to this year’s Open at Royal Liverpool, R&A Films, in partnership with Rolex, have released DUEL, a sublime 47-minute documentary which puts a modern twist on a classic tale.

DUEL, available exclusively to members of The One Club, interweaves rich archive footage with contemporary animated scenes. There are contributions from the main protagonists, modern-day stars such as Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, and leading golf personalities.

Tom Watson (left) and Jack Nicklaus during the Duel in the Sun in 1977.

Nicklaus and Watson were the two best golfers in the world in 1977.

Nicklaus had already claimed 14 major titles by the time the Claret Jug pitched up on the west coast of Scotland that summer.

“When you looked at that leaderboard, you were only looking for one name, and that was Jack Nicklaus,” said Watson. “He was the guy you had to beat.”

Meanwhile, Watson, a whole decade younger than his rival, had just picked up his second major in the form of the Green Jacket he won at Augusta three months earlier.

“If Tom was David, Jack was Goliath,” said filmmaker Erik Anders Lang.

After shooting the exact same score in rounds one, two and three, Nicklaus and Watson were neck-and-neck and paired together for the final round.

“[The final day] is statement day for Jack because he’s the great major champion, and this is what major champions do on [the final day]; they take control early,” said Doug Ferguson from Associated Press.

This is exactly what Nicklaus did, capitalising on a bogey from Watson at the first by finding a birdie for an immediate two-shot swing. By the fourth hole this lead had increased to three.

“When Jack Nicklaus has got a three-shot lead after four holes in the final round of an Open Championship I’m like: ‘Pop the champagne!’ He has to win,” said Alex Miceli from Sports Illustrated.

But the Golden Bear, depicted as a superhero in DUEL, knew his rival was made of sterner stuff.

Jack Nicklaus - the Golden Bear

“Intimidation is a factor that probably played a little bit in the game of golf when I was playing,” began Nicklaus.

“There were two guys I played with… who were never intimidated. One was [Lee] Trevino and the other was Watson.

“Tom was a guy that I knew you weren’t going to shake. He was a tough guy to play against. Once you got ahead of him, you knew he was coming back.”

And come back he did, sinking a 12ft putt on the fifth to reduce the deficit to two. Another birdie on seven left the minimum margin between them, before Watson drained a monster 30ft putt to restore parity at nine-under-par.

“If you equate this to boxing,” said Ferguson, “Jack knocked him down in the fourth round and Tom staggers up and, bang, he came out swinging.”

Tom Watson in The Open in 1977

Much like Rocky, one of Hollywood’s most successful underdog stories, DUEL rises to a crescendo, helped in no small part by the back-and-forth nature of this historic denouement.

Such was Nicklaus’ resolve that by the 13th tee he had opened up another two-shot lead. He had Watson on the ropes but was unable to land the knockout blow.

Like the fighter he is, Watson recovered, and two more birdies meant the pair were level once again as they walked onto the 17th tee. After 70 captivating holes there was still nothing to separate these two titans.

“What I love about the mental strength of winners is that they don’t blink,” said Mike Tirico from NBC. “They get in the heat and they don’t crumble.”

What played out on the final two holes – the 18th in particular – is now the stuff of sporting legend.

“When you go back and watch how that 18th hole unfolded,” said Ferguson, “it tells us about Watson, and it tells us just as much about Nicklaus, and not giving up when the circumstances tell you, you probably should.”

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DUEL is available exclusively to members of One Club, a free-to-join community which brings golf fans closer to The Open, and is the latest offering from R&A Films, in partnership with Rolex, following on from 'SEVE. Artist. Fighter. Legend' and our highly regarded 'Chronicles of a Champion Golfer' series. Why not watch the entire back catalogue on R&A TV.