LONG READ

The 150th Open: A blether with Jack, Tom and Gary

Champion Golfers

The history of golf is dotted with small groups of individuals who have combined to define their respective eras.

From the Morrises and Parks’ of the 19th century to the so-called ‘Great Triumvirate’ of Harry Vardon, JH Taylor and James Braid who succeeded them, venerated clusters are rich in supply.

In time, history will surely come to regard Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson with the same deference.

Between them, the trio has combined for 459 major appearances and a remarkable 35 wins. Eleven of those victories have come in the oldest and most prestigious championship of them all – The Open.

Their appearances span seven decades and 59 tournaments. Indeed, in the post-War era, there have only been 17 Opens in which none of them featured.

They are, quite simply, icons of both the sport and The Open.

In terms of Opens at St Andrews, they have made a combined 25 appearances, at least one of them featuring in every championship played over the Old Course since 1957.

Who better, then, to give their opinions on the town, the course and the championship for which both have become world-renowned?

* * *

Gentlemen, thank you for your time. I’d like to start by asking you for your earliest memory of St Andrews? 

GP: It goes back to the 1955 Open Championship. I travelled alone on the train from London up to Scotland. I got off at Leuchars and I had absolutely no idea where I was. I was looking around saying ‘Where’s the golf course?’ Luckily, I happened to bump into Peter Alliss and another couple of players. They must have sensed I was lost and asked where I was from. I said South Africa and they helped me make my way into the town. I had £200 in my pocket. That was my total wealth. I didn’t have anywhere to stay so I looked around at a few hotels but the prices were shocking so, that first night, I slept on the beach under the stars at the West Sands. The next day, I managed to find accommodation in a nice place opposite the 18th green but it was very basic. There were no curtains, so I had to buy a sheet to hang up over the window. It was also very, very small. When you put the key in the lock, the window broke! [laughs] The mice were all hunchbacked! But it didn’t matter. I was just thrilled to be in St Andrews or, as I call it, the ‘Parliament of Golf’.  

TW: It would have been some time in the mid-1970s. I remember standing behind the 18th green and being interviewed by Peter Alliss. I recall looking down the wide expanse of the first and final fairways and wondering how anybody could ever miss them! It’s funny, I think back on that now and I’m reminded of a great quote by Robert Trent Jones Jnr, with whom I designed the Links at Spanish Bay. He said: “The Old Course starts with a handshake and finishes with a handshake.” 

JN: That would have been when I was playing at Muirfield in the Walker Cup matches of 1959. My father and three of his friends went over to play St Andrews. He came back and said, “That’s the worst golf course I’ve ever seen.” It was in horrible condition, one of them three-putted 15 greens, another one 14 and one of the other ones 13 of them. So, that was my first recollection of St Andrews as far as knowing somebody who had played it. I guess it would have been the next year that Arnold [Palmer] went over to play in The Open that Kel Nagle won. So anyway, I didn’t know what to expect when I went there in 1964. From the moment I got there, I loved the place. I said, “What was my dad talking about?” The course was fantastic, the town was fantastic, the charm of everything and the people was just unbelievable. I loved it from the day I saw it.  

How was your first experience of playing the golf course?  

JN: I remember looking down the first hole from the tee and I figured that there I only had about 150 yards to hit it in, so I reckoned, “I think I can do this.” [laughs] But it was a fantastic experience. I loved what you had to do and why you had to do it, where you could play and where you couldn’t play. It seemed to me that the golf course told you how to play it. All you had to do was listen. 

GP: I remember my first round as if it was yesterday. I walked onto the first tee and the starter – this gruff, dour gentleman – said, “Here are your three balls for the week.” Three balls! Nowadays, you get four dozen and more if you need them! Anyway, it comes my turn to hit and the starter says, “Play away, laddie.” I remember looking down the fairway and thinking it was so wide that even Ray Charles couldn’t miss it. Well, what did I know! I hooked it straight out of bounds! I bent over to pick up my tee and I heard the starter say, “Where did you say you were from, laddie?” I said South Africa. He said, “What’s your name?” Gary Player, sir. “And your handicap?” I said, “No no, I’m a professional.” He said, “A professional? You? Well, you must be hell of a good chipper and putter!” [Laughs] Of course, I had the last laugh when I went back in 1960 as the defending champion! But in terms of my first impressions of the golf course, you must remember that I was a very young, naïve and inexperienced young man at the time. It was my first-ever time away from home, so I wasn’t particularly impressed. I remember thinking that they’d spoiled a good marsh. Honestly, I thought it was the biggest piece of crap I’d ever seen. It was windy, there were birds pecking at the fairways, the fairways themselves were extremely wide, there were big humps on the greens. It was like playing on the moon. But as I got to know it, I started to love it and, nowadays, it’s one of my favourite places in the world. It is the most marvellous place and it has been extremely kind to me over the years. I remember one year Arnold Palmer and I decided to go play the first, second, 17th and 18th holes late one night. By the time we reached the second green, word had got around the town and there were 2,000 people out there watching us. You don’t get that anywhere else. If I could have my ashes scattered anywhere, it would be on the Old Course. 

Gary Player

TW: So, my first time would have been in 1978, when it staged the Open. I really didn’t like it at first and, in the main, for the same reasons that I didn’t like links golf to begin with. You need to remember, I had been used to playing the ball through the air so, to come over to the UK and have to play it more along the ground with all kinds of quirky bounces, I just didn’t enjoy it at all. It wasn’t until one of my friends pointed out to me that I was my own worst enemy when it came to links golf that my attitude towards it changed. I learned to embrace the bounces, not complain about them. But certainly that took a while and, as far as the Old Course went, it took me some time to really appreciate it... despite the fact I shared the 54-hole lead in ‘78! 

Where does an Open at St Andrews rank in terms of important championships? 

TW: I look at it from a ‘world of golf’ perspective. When most people sit down to think about the courses they would most like to play, there are usually two that they settle on: the Old Course and Pebble Beach. The fact that they host the two biggest Opens – the Open and the US Open – I think makes them extra special. For fans of the game, those are championships you aspire to go and watch. And for us pros, the opportunity to stand on the first tee, where all of the greats of the game – with the exception of Ben Hogan – have come down the pike before us, it’s a wonderful honour. It’s that kind of place.  

GP: The Open Championship is the most important tournament in the world. Number one. The Masters has lots of opulence and lots of money and it’s a wonderful tournament. But nothing compares to The Open and, particularly, an Open in St Andrews. Nothing comes close. The game that we all love and adore started there and the R&A do a remarkable job. If you love history and you love golf, there is nothing quite like it.  

JN: For me, it ranks right at the top of the list. That’s why I ended my career at St Andrews. What the town means to the game of golf, what it meant to me and my career, what it meant to so many others – including Bob Jones – I just thought it was a very, very special place. You might say I put it on a pedestal and left it there.  

Jack Nicklaus St Andrews Open Win 1978

Jack, you’ve obviously had the great privilege and pleasure of winning The Open – twice – at St Andrews. How important was it to you, personally, to have an Open win on the Old Course on your resumé?

JN: Well, I always remember what Bob Jones told me. He said, ‘Your golfing resumé is not complete until you win at St Andrews.’ I went there in 1964 and finished second to Tony Lema. I thought I had a good chance midway through the third round and then Lema reeled off about seven straight threes. That sort of ended the tournament. But I got the worst of the weather. If I recall correctly, I played afternoon and morning, and we got the thunderstorms and wind. I shot 148 and, of that half of the draw, Bruce Devlin was the low scorer with 147. My 148 included 41 and 38 putts, so there were a lot of putts in those first two rounds. Of course, Lema was in the other half and ended up winning the tournament but I finished 66-68 and I walked away pretty pleased with my efforts. I came back again in 1970 and I was really disappointed when I finished because I thought I’d lost it to Doug Sanders, only for him to miss that little putt on the last. All of a sudden, I had a renewed chance to win and, of course, I did. I came back again in ‘78, played well and won again. I played again in ‘84, ‘90, ‘95 and 2000, and then, of course, I had my farewell there in 2005. A funny story about that, actually. During the Champions Dinner in 2000, I was talking with the former secretary of the R&A, Peter Dawson. I said, “Peter, when’s the next time you’re coming to St Andrews?” He said, “Well, we’re scheduled for 2006.” I said, “Oh, that’s a pity. I’m going to be 66 and too old to be able to play.” So he said, “If we happen to switch it to 2005, would you play?” I said, “In a heartbeat. I’m there.” That’s why I finished at St Andrews, thanks to Peter Dawson and his courtesy to move the championship to 2005. Now, they probably won’t admit that but that’s okay, I know what he did and I’ll forever be grateful for having been able to finish my career there. I wish that I hadn’t finished on the Friday but there you go.  

That ovation you received coming up 18 for the last time was truly spine-tingling. How was it for you? 

JN: Any time you come up 18 at St Andrews is somewhat surreal. It’s funny, I think back now and my mind goes back to ‘78 where the people were hanging out their windows, sitting on the rooftops, running us down on the fairway... it was an experience I’ll never forget. It was fantastic. But yeah, in 2005, I was playing with [Tom] Watson and Luke Donald, and it’s funny, if you look back at the pictures, Watson and my son Steve, who was caddying for me, spent more time crying than I did waving goodbye! It was very emotional for all of us and, yeah, it’s just a wonderful memory to have. 

Tom, you were on the wrong side of history when Seve Ballesteros charmed fans with his now iconic celebration in 1984. How do you reflect on that? 

TW: Yeah, I guess it’s just one of those things. You know, I was tied for the lead with two holes to go but I hit my approach onto the road at 17. I knocked it on to about 20 feet but, just as I was about to hit my putt, Seve, who was in the group in front did what he did at 18. Suddenly, that par putt became a ‘must make’. I missed and that was that. Game over. I guess as I look back I had my opportunities to win that day. So, too, Bernhard Langer. We just didn’t make any putts.  

There is a lot of talk about what big-hitters like Bryson DeChambeau might do to the course this year. Realistically, could somebody shoot a 59 or better at The 150th Open? 

GP: If there’s no wind, it’s very likely. DeChambeau could quite possibly drive eight of the par-4s, and that includes flying it over the burn on the first. But this is the problem. Things have got totally out of hand in terms of equipment. I’m 86-years-old and I’ve beaten my age 2,400 times in a row. I’m shooting par nearly all the time. That’s because of how good the ball is, the clubs are, the way the courses are maintained. Even things like rakes. We used to rake bunkers with our feet! So, things have got to change because change is the price of survival. We can’t keep making golf courses longer. Besides anything else, we’re running out of water in the world – which I know is a strange thing to say to a Scot! – and fertiliser is poisoning the soil beneath our feet. Then you’ve got labour costs and so on. It’s unsustainable, so you’ve got to change accordingly. Common sense has to prevail. And, for me, the easiest solution is to knock 50 yards off the golf ball for pros only. Keep things as they are for amateurs but knock 50 yards off the ball for professionals. If we don’t, it will be the ruination of the game. Honestly, there are no par-5s anymore. Not in the ‘real’ sense. 

TW: A 59? It’s possible, yes, but I think it’s highly improbable. Peter Dawson, the former chief executive of the R&A, had a wonderful way of explaining how they set up courses to stage The Open. He said the vagaries of the weather dictate the score, and that’s so true. It’s proven that if the wind is low, the scores will be low, whereas if the wind is high, the scores will be high. So, it’s very much at the mercy of Mother Nature in that respect. The longer hitters like Bryson will fancy their chances of driving the green at number three, ten, twelve, nine if they get right wind. But look, St Andrews is a tough course no matter how far you hit it. The green complexes are so big and the flags are so tucked that you can’t hit it stiff. Whenever I was preparing to come over to St Andrews, I spent a lot of time practising putting from 80 feet or so. If you’re just a fraction off with your irons, you’re going to be having a lot of 80, 90, even 100-foot putts, so you need to have good speed control. Look at both of Tiger Woods’ Open wins there. His putting was always spot on. No matter how far away he found himself, he always rolled it stone dead. You know, people ask me, how do you play links golf? I always tell them you have get a feel for distance. Feel is everything and that’s especially true at St Andrews.  

JN: I’ve always felt that St Andrews is a golf course that, if you play well, you’re rewarded, whereas if you go a little astray, it penalises you. It’s a course you can shoot a really good score on and a course you can shoot a really bad score on. Could you shoot 59 on it? Sure... but nobody ever has. We’ll have to wait and see.  

Tom Watson St Andrews

What skills do you need to have to win an Open Championship at St Andrews? 

TW: Oh the key ingredient is judgement of the wind. Always.  

JN: I think St Andrews is not so much a golf course of driving, as drive placement. It’s the same with irons. You have to put your ball in the right spots and, if you do, that’s when the tournament really begins because it’s probably one of the most difficult places in the world to putt well on. It’s not that the greens are bad, it’s that they have so much variety and character to them. They produce a lot of putts for a lot of golfers, and they’re huge.

GP: Long driving is an asset at St Andrews, that is for certain. But it’s not a necessity. What wins golf tournaments are putting and the mind. Take Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, for example. For two of the game’s undisputed superstars, they are also two of the worst drivers of the ball I have ever seen in my life. Yet, at their best, they were numbers one and two in the world because they had the best short games. Chipping, putting and particularly the mind: those are the things that get your name engraved on trophies.  

What is your favourite hole at St Andrews? 

TW: I’m not sure it’s my favourite, as such, but the most difficult hole for me – certainly latterly – has been the 12th. Ever since I’ve been unable to hit the ball far enough off the tee to clear the second series of bunkers, it has kind of confused me. Do I go down the middle and risk bringing the bunkers into play? Or do I go left or right and basically accept that I’m going to be hitting my second shot from the rough, possibly catching a flier lie, and have to hit my approach from the thicker stuff into what I call a ‘Top Hat’ green. It has caused me all kinds of trouble and I’ve made more bogeys than I should have. Yes, it’s a unique hole, for sure! 

GP: I love them all. Truthfully, I do. It’s very hard to choose but, if I had to pick just one, it would be the ‘Road’ hole (No.17). It’s hard to beat, isn’t it? It’s almost the complete test: a semi-blind tee shot, an extremely tough second shot, a narrow green, the bunker at the front and the road at the back. Whenever I think of it, I can’t help but think of poor Tommy Nakajima! [Note: Nakajima took five shots to get out of the bunker in front of the green during the 1978 Open, effectively ending his title hopes.] It’s a nightmare. A bloody nightmare. It kind of reminds me of my mother-in-law! 

JN: Well, I’ve got two favourites. The 17th is a unique, unusual golf hole, with hitting over the old railway sheds and part of the hotel, and then having the road behind the green and, of course, the ‘Road’ bunker and so on. It’s a very challenging and difficult hole. It’s a par four-and-a-half, really. But I also love the 18th. It’s actually quite a nondescript hole. You have the whole world to drive it in, even though you really want to put it in a certain spot. But I just love the finish. Finishing in the town centre, with all the people wandering around, there’s just nothing else quite like it. So, I’d choose those two holes: one for golf and one for sentiment.  

Jack Nicklaus St Andrews

Away from the Old Course, what’s your favourite thing about St Andrews? 

JN: I’ve actually not been there very often when The Open hasn’t been on but the whole town buzzes for golf, doesn’t it? We like to stay out of town during the championship at Rufflets. In 1964, I think it was Peter Mitchell from Slazenger who said he had made reservations there and we said, okay, that’s fine. We didn’t know any different. Anyway, we went down, we stayed there and we loved it, so much so that we’ve stayed there every time we’ve gone back since then. With any luck, we’ll be staying there again this year.  

TW: I’ve always enjoyed going to the cemetery at the far end of the town and seeing the remains of Young Tom Morris’ grave. I feel almost a sense of duty, I suppose, to pay my respects to Young Tom, Old Tom, Allan Robertson; the founding fathers of the professional game, basically. I just love all of the history. I mean, did you know that there were more signatories of the United States ‘Declaration of Independence’ who were graduates of the University of St Andrews than anywhere else? Education and golf, that’s really what the town is known for, and certainly when you walk through the streets during an Open, the air is filled with true excitement, true passion. The pub life, the museums, the university, the golf courses... and everything is walking distance. That’s the other big thing. And as a finish to a golf course goes, there’s nowhere else like it. It’s truly one of the most special places in the game. 

GP: I also quite like visiting the graveyard in the Cathedral grounds. I like to walk around it and look at the names of all of the famous players who have been buried there. One thing I have for golf is the utmost gratitude. I am so thankful for the talent that I have been loaned and I have absolute respect for the game. The history is just remarkable and it all started right there in St Andrews. It is a devastatingly important place. And, of course, the friendliness of the people is just fantastic. Everybody treats you like a brother. It’s so special. 

Who would be in your dream Old Course fourball? 

GP: Winston Churchill, for sure; Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, would be another; and Mahatma Gandhi. If I could, I would also try to sneak on Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Imagine the conversations! 

TW: Let me see, I suppose I would have to go for Jack [Nicklaus], [Lee] Trevino and our late friend Arnold [Palmer]. 

JN: I’d like to pick four, if that’s okay? I’d pick my four boys. I think that would be really special. They all play really well and it’s something we actually did at Pebble Beach. It was a bit of a ‘Bucket List’ trip. I took the boys out and we played Cypress Point one day and Pebble Beach the next. That was a great two days. Unfortunately, Gary couldn’t make it but the other three boys were with me. I don’t know if I’ll ever have that opportunity at St Andrews but, if I do, those are the four people I’d like to play with.  

And finally, you can choose only word to sum up St Andrews – what are you choosing? 

GP: Ecstasy.  

TW: Classic.

JN: That’s a tough one. You know, the one that comes to mind is ‘love’. I love everything about it.  

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