Friday, July 9, 2010

July 9, 1977: The Duel in the Sun

SOUTH AYRSHIRE, Scotland - As Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus stood on the 16th tee in the final round of the 1977 British Open, Watson smiled at Nicklaus. Watson, the redheaded up-and-coming star, the Masters champion in 1977, was tied with Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, the established superstar, with two holes left. They were paired together for the third round and had entered that round one shot off the lead. Matching 65s vaulted them into the lead, and here they stood, two holes from the end of the tournament, still tied. So Watson smiled and Nicklaus and said "This is what it's all about, isn't it?" Nicklaus smiled back and said "You bet it is."

You bet.

It is said that greatness inspires greatness, that the best athletes bring out the best of each other. It's possible that either Watson or Nicklaus could have shot a 65 again without being pushed by the other. But they had each other, and they rose to the occasion. And on a sunny day on the western coast of Scotland, they played one of the most legendary final rounds of golf ever seen.

They had matched each other shot-for-shot in the first three rounds, posting identical scorelines of 68-70-65. They were two chess grandmasters, one waiting for the other to blink. And after 16 holes of the final round, after 70 holes of matching each other shot-for-shot, Nicklaus finally blinked. He missed a makeable birdie putt on the 17th, and when Watson made his birdie putt, somebody finally had the upper hand. One shot up, one hole to play.

Watson extended his advantage on the 18th, driving into the fairway while Nicklaus found the rough. It seemed over when Watson's approach shot landed two feet from the pin, while Nicklaus ended up 40 feet away. But Nicklaus showed the resolve of a champion, showing why he had become known as the best golfer of all time, sinking the 40-foot birdie putt to give him a momentary share of the lead. Suddenly, Watson's two-footer to win the tournament didn't seem so easy. Still, though, Watson sank it, finishing up his second straight 65 to win the Open by one shot.

The Duel in the Sun, as the final round has come to be known, has become legendary in British Open lore. Nicklaus and Watson were at the top of their games, and nobody in the world had a chance against them that week. Nicklaus' score would have been a British Open record by seven shots, except that he didn't win the tournament. In the past, most opponents would have been intimidated by Nicklaus' performance in the last two rounds, would have eventually succumbed to the pressure of matching him shot-for-shot. Not Watson. And when Watson's final putt dropped, and he had his first British Open title, everybody praised him and announced expectations that he'd be golf's Next Big Thing.

In the quiet of the locker room after the round, Nicklaus had a much more sobering account. Shaking his head, he said quietly, "I just couldn't shake him."

July 9, 2002: MILWAUKEE - If there will be a lasting image of Bud Selig's tenure as baseball commissioner, it might be that shrug after the 11th inning of the All Star Game in Milwaukee. Because that's what most people remember about that game. Some probably remember Torii Hunter robbing Barry Bonds of a home run in the first inning, followed by Bonds playfully lifting Hunter over his shoulder with almost frightening ease. But few remember the National League taking a 7-2 lead in the sixth, only to see the American League storm back to tie the game. Then came extra innings. Then the meeting between the managers and Selig. Then Selig's Shrug. It wasn't Selig's fault that the managers had run out of pitchers and that nobody was available to pitch the 12th inning and beyond. But it was Selig's fault that he couldn't come up with a solution, that all he could think of doing was shrugging his shoulders and saying "Then I guess it's a tie."

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