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Tony Jacklin - Icon of his time

It was in the summer of ’69 that a 25 year-old Tony Jacklin hit the shot of his life to seal a victory in the Open at Royal Lytham that would set him on the road to stardom, writes John Hopkins

On July 17, 1969, Tony Jacklin stood on the 18th tee at Royal Lytham & St Annes in the last round of the Open Championship. Jacklin, who had turned 25 ten days earlier, wore a shrieking pair of trousers, a V-neck sweater over a roll neck shirt and a slight frown. He was leading the Open and he was about to hit the most important stroke of his young life.

The eyes of many golfers in the United Kingdom and a good few around the world were watching him on BBC television and in colour for the first time. With his trusted driver, he took a practice swing and one last look down the narrowing fairway, noting the bunkers on either side. There are many easier driving holes than the 18th at Lytham and not many that are more difficult.

“It is one of the hardest in golf because of the positioning of the bunkers,” Jacklin said. “There was one bunker across the fairway and if you took a 1-iron for accuracy you couldn’t clear that bunker. There were no two ways about it. You had to take a driver and it required the perfect shot. I remember Eric Brown taking a six there to lose the Open. I remember looking down the fairway and saying to myself: You’ve done this a thousand times. You can do it.

I thought to myself: ‘Wide and smooth, wide and smooth.’ Those were my swing thoughts and as I’m thinking it, I’m doing it. That is what is known as being in the moment. I was where I needed to be. I wasn’t ahead of myself.”

Jacklin took another practice swing and launched the ball into the air. It flew down the fairway to finish exactly where he had wanted it to. “Great! I thought to myself. Great!” In the television commentary box Henry Longhurst watched it take off, and said with true Longhurstian appropriateness and after a Longhurstian pause: “Oh! What a corker!”

Having reached his drive, Jacklin took only a moment or two to decide that he would not use his 8- iron for his second shot. Instead he would play an easy 7. His reasoning was that he had spent some time in the previous two winters hitting thousands and thousands of 7-iron shots as he strove to make his legs more dynamic. He was confident now that he could reproduce a good smooth swing, driving his legs powerfully, and he did just that, his ball ending four yards from the flagstick. “I don’t think people are aware of how the legs are meant to work” Jacklin said. “Most people do the reverse. They start the downswing with the arms and the legs never get engaged. I knew what I was doing [that day at Lytham].”

A few minutes later, and having had one shoe torn off in the rush of spectators to get to the green, he watched Bob Charles hole for a parfour before holing his for a similar four. He walked off the green, his right arm raised in salute at the applause that was cascading on him, the first British Open champion since Max Faulkner in 1951. A new national hero had been born.

Jacklin pocketed a cheque for £4,250. It was the start of a momentous run of form for Jacklin. Later that year he was the last man out for Great Britain & Ireland against the US in the Ryder Cup and he and Jack Nicklaus had a dingdong singles match that ended when Nicklaus conceded Jacklin’s two-foot putt for a half on the 18th hole at Royal Birkdale. This meant a tied match, 16-16. Nicklaus’s generous concession, while not being welcomed by Sam Snead, the US captain, received huge approbation around the world for being an act of real sportsmanship. Nearly 40 years later, Jacklin and Nicklaus combined to design a golf course near Bradenton in Florida called The Concession.

Jacklin found himself flying back and forth across the Atlantic as he tried to continue his career in the US while at the same time making himself available as the Open champion for tournaments on this side of the Atlantic. “The cabbies in London used to shout out when they saw me: ‘Hello, Tone. Not so good as last week.’ They were following my progress. They had a cabbies’ golf society.” Early in 1970 he was awarded the OBE, appeared on This is Your Life and became a regular contender, if not winner, in tournaments in the US.

Jacklin performed so well because he had an almost unbreakable confidence. “When I was 17 or 18 I said I wanted to be the best player in the world. It was simple. I am a great believe that if you haven’t put it in then when you want to summon it up, it won’t be there. You don’t know what to do. This [pointing to his head] is the greatest computer the world has ever seen. I knew that if I was to be the best in the world I was going to have to beat Arnold [Palmer], [Jack] Nicklaus and win majors. I had to learn to beat these guys and everything I did was to that end.”

No self doubts then, Tony? “Not really. Self doubt is every sportsman’s enemy but I was where I wanted to be. I certainly didn’t back off. I made mistakes. I didn’t win everything. I used to go home and analyse my performances. I was always thinking about what I needed to do better and so I took care of it.

I was a pro and that’s what pros do. After every round you have to figure out what you felt like when you were doing this and whether that was right or wrong. It is a process. This is an impossible game, golf. I wasn’t trying to do anything that was beyond my capabilities. I would go back to the words that my father used to say. He was a simple chap, my father. And a great pal. He used to say when I was younger: “Tone, they’ve got two arms, two legs, and a head on their shoulders, just like you.” That might be one of the world’s greatest oversimplifications but it's true. That is all anyone has whether it is Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus or whoever.”

In June 1970, the reigning Open champion entered the US Open at Hazeltine National golf club in Chaska, Minnesota, where he started with a birdie three and went on strongly from there. Dave Hill, the American pro, may have said all that Hazeltine needed was “80 acres of corn and some cows” and Lee Trevino may have said that “If anyone shoots 281 [seven under par] on this course then the Pope is a possum” but to Jacklin it was pure paradise. The weather for the first round was cold and windy.

Most players hated it but Jacklin loved it. It reminded him of the conditions he had experienced while growing up in England. Punching his irons low through the wind and helped by sinking two 40-foot putts and holing out from a bunker, Jacklin went round in 71. He was the only player under par. Nearly half the field recorded 80 or worse. Some chap called Nicklaus took 81. What happened to him?

“Most Americans don’t know how to play in a wind,” Jacklin said later. “They are not conditioned to it. I was. I might take any club at all from 160 yards – even a 2-iron. I practised that sort of thing all the time.”

Jacklin led by two strokes after 18 holes, three strokes at halfway, four strokes after three rounds and seven after four, the widest margin of victory for nearly 50 years. His winning score was 281, although the Pope is not a possum.

Jacklin placed the winner’s cheque of $30,000 in a pocket of his trousers and forgot it when he sent the trousers to be dry-cleaned. The next day he received a pair of neatly pressed trousers and a washed and laundered cheque on which the writing had faded. “We had to get the USGA [United States Golf Association] to write me out another,” Jacklin said with a smile.

Three British journalists were in attendance at Chaska: Henry Longhurst who, in addition to writing for the Sunday Times, was commentating for US television; Ben Wright of the Financial Times; and Leonard Crawley of the Daily Telegraph.

Crawley, a formidable figure with a florid face and a bushy moustache, often dressed in tweedy plus-fours. To the Americans, he was the epitome of a British upper-class eccentric. In the aftermath of Jacklin’s victory, Crawley tugged on his moustache and sat down in front of his typewriter to begin composing his report. He looked around the press room and said: “I have the whole of England at my feet, you know.”

So had Jacklin. For a few years thereafter his grinning face, with his teeth as regular and gleaming as a newly painted picket fence, peered out from advertisements. He commanded £3,000 for a day’s clinic, £2,000 in appearance money. Named the Lincolnshire poacher, he made a record. He had plenty to sing about. The former steam-fitter’s apprentice was a millionaire. He bought himself a lavender coloured Jensen Interceptor to go with the OBE he had been awarded for winning the Open. As football managers are wont to say, “the boy had done good.”

Winning two major championships in 11 months set Jacklin’s stock soaring. The most successful British golfer since Henry Cotton 30 years earlier, he had become as popular as a pop star. As a world-class golfer, he was the rock on which the foundations of the European Tour were laid, first by John Jacobs and later continued by Ken Schofield and George O’Grady. It all went back to that drive at Lytham that July day in 1969. If Jacklin hadn’t hit a corker, he might not have gone on to win and Jacobs would not have been able to use him at the start of the European Tour. But he did hit a corker. How good was it?

It was one to set alongside Gene Sarazen’s shot that was heard around the world when he holed his second shot on the par-five 15th at Augusta in 1935; one to compare with Bubba Watson’s miraculous recovery from deep in the trees to win the 2012 Masters; and with Sandy Lyle’s clean-as-a-whistle bunker shot on the 18th at Augusta National to set up victory in the 1988 Masters. Also with Seve Ballesteros’s bunker shot with a 3- wood to grab a half in his singles at the 1983 Ryder Cup. And remember Nick Faldo hit a 95-yard wedge shot followed by a five-foot putt that laid the foundations for European victory in the 1995 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill. But it is no exaggeration to say that Jacklin’s drive was the shot that did more than any other to help found the modern European Tour.

But now, looking back on those heady days 40 years ago, Jacklin admits he worked too hard at money-making ventures in the aftermath of these victories and his golf suffered. He remained a force in world golf only until 1972, when his chances of winning that Open were ended by a fluke chip-in on the 71st hole by Lee Trevino. That shot not only ended Jacklin’s tilt at victory in that Open at Muirfield but, he now admits, it ended his interest in golf.

“There is a burden of responsibility in being a champion,” Jacklin said. “I was the only one around at the time. I tried to be all thing to all men. It took time for me to realise I couldn’t be.

Plus IMG [the International Management Group, his managers] were great at coming up with financial deals and leaving it to you to say no. I wanted someone to tell me to say no to some of them. I never got that and the result was I did far too much. In the end I ran out of try.

Mark McCormack [IMG’s founder] was an opportunist. It was all about him. He was building his empire, his management business. I was a pawn in the game. He’d got Palmer, he'd got Nicklaus. He had conquered America and when I won, above all else he wanted me in Britain to spearhead his British campaign and help get British clients. He used to say to me: ‘You’ve got to be in Europe, my boy’.”

Jacklin has very little good to say about McCormack. He advised him to invest in Lloyds and that ended badly. “Guys in the City barricaded themselves against their losses,” Jacklin said. “It was mugs like Henry Cooper and me who suffered.”

As Jacklin’s star waned, others came along to take over. Peter Oosterhuis, another Englishman, played full-time on the US tour and won one event. Then came Europe’s Big Five of Severiano Ballesteros from Spain, Bernhard Langer from Germany, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam from the United Kingdom, who were all born between April 1957 (Ballesteros) and March 1958 (Woosnam). Less than a decade later came José Maria Olazábal, who was born in February 1966. They all followed the path blazed by Jacklin, all winning major championships in the US and all but Woosnam, Langer and Olazábal in Britain as well.

But Jacklin lead the way. He was the pathfinder, the first Briton to win two major championship in 11 months, the first man to take on the Americans, the first Briton to believe in himself in the US since The Great Triumvirate at the turn of the previous century. In truth, he was the right man in the right place at the right time. European golf owes a huge debt to Jacklin, not for what he did by leading the Ryder Cup team in the 1980s but for what he did in those golden months starting in July 1969 and ending in June 1970. For those 11 months he held the world of golf in his hands.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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