Fifty years ago today, a simple yet supreme gesture that still stands tall as a shining beacon of sportsmanship took place on the 18th green at Royal Birkdale as the 1969 Ryder Cup reached its climax.
This extract from The Official History of The Ryder Cup, 1927-1989, by Michael Williams, describes ‘The Concession’.
Ten thousand people and more crammed every vantage point they could find around Royal Birkdale’s eighteenth hole in the grey, fading light of a damp September evening, their necks craned for a glimpse of the two principal figures on what was to them the loneliest stage in the world.
No script could have been more dramatically written: Great Britain and the United States level at 15 ½ matches each, and now Tony Jacklin and Jack Nicklaus, the only two players left on the course, all square, one to play. Nor were there two better men to fill the leading roles: Jacklin, who earlier that summer have become the first British golfer to win the Open Championship in eighteen years, and Nicklaus, the greatest golfer of his time, already winner of three Masters, two US Opens, one PGA and one British Open, yet playing now in his first Ryder Cup match. Upon these two did everything hinge.
As they descended the red shale path from the eighteenth tee, Jacklin was some yards ahead, lost in concentration, when suddenly Nicklaus called his name. Jacklin paused and waited.
“How do you feel, Tony?” asked Nicklaus as he moved alongside.
“Bloody awful,” replied Jacklin with absolute honesty.
“I thought you might,” replied Nicklaus, “but if it is any consolation, so do I. A bugger isn’t it?!”
With this mutual understanding of the pressure they were both under, they went their separate ways, Jacklin left of centre of the fairway but a little way ahead of Nicklaus. It was the American who had to play first and he hit his second to the ‘fat’ of the green, perhaps 10 yards to the right of the flag. Jacklin followed bravely over the left-hand bunker. His ball ran to the back of the green and he had to putt first.
Barely a sound could be heard as lips were pursed, nails bitten an brows mopped. Jacklin took his time. Hit got the right line, but the putt was always just short and game to rest less than 18 inches from the hole. Nicklaus, ‘going to school’ on what he had seen, went boldly across the damp turf for what would have been an eagle three and victory not only for him but for the United States as well. His ball ran three or four feet past, and now he had to putt again.
Hunched in that characteristic manner of his, Nicklaus holed for his four. Now it was Jacklin’s turn, but even as he stepped forward, so Nicklaus stooped, picked up his opponent’s marker and with a grin offered his hand. Their game was halved and the match was tied. “I am sure you would have holed,” said Nicklaus, “but I was not prepared to see you miss.” Thus ended with one supreme gesture a match that will for ever stand as a memorial for all that is best about the Ryder Cup.
Perhaps some minds went back to the short putt Syd Easterbrook had, in similar circumstances, holed for outright victory on the 18th green at Southport and Ainsdale, only just down the road from Birkdale, 36 years earlier – but that was the early days of the Ryder Cup and long before the American monopoly had set in. Furthermore, it was the second time in the summer of 1969 that British golf has received a major uplift. Still fresh in the memory was Jacklin’s victory in The Open at Royal Lytham, his play then of the last hole, when two strokes ahead of Bob Charles, being right out of the same top drawer. If Severiano Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Bernhard Langer, have all played considerable parts in Europe’s standing in the golfing world today, there is certainly no doubt that the man who initially lit the fuse was Jacklin.
In addition to the use of the big ball being made compulsory and the match being commercially sponsored for the first time, another essential difference from preceding years was that was were now 12 players on each side instead of ten. This had to make sense, for it not only gave the two captains, Eric Brown and Sam Snead, greater room in which to manipulate, but it put less demand on the players – unless, of course, your name happened to be Jacklin. He alone played in all six games in three days, a total of 104 holes out of a possible 108, and, befitting this new-bon star, he was unbeaten, winning four and halving two.
Over the first two days the momentum swung one way and then the other until, after two days, the two sides remained level at 8-8, sixteen singles to come and everything to play for. By lunch on the last day the prize was there for the taking, for Britain won 5-3 to creep ahead once more. It was the tail that swung the pendulum, for after Trevino, Hill and Casper had won three of the first four games for America, O’Connor, Bembrdge, Butler and Jacklin (four and three against Nicklaus) took the last four. At the press conference before the players went out again, Eric Brown was almost incoherent with excitement.
Yet once again it was the Americans who came out fighting for their lives, Hill, Barber, Sikes and Littler bringing home the points against two for Britain from the audaciously brilliant Gallacher, who beat Trevino by four and three, and the ever reliable Butler, who took good care of Douglass. So again the two sides were level, and only two games out on the course.
Huggett recalls as if it were yesterday coming to the last all square with Casper and mistakenly believing that behind him Jacklin was one up on Nicklaus. In fact Jacklin had lost the 16th to go back to one down and when, just as Huggett was about to putt on the 18th green, a tremendous shout went up from the 17th, he was convinced that is could only mean that Jacklin had won. What the Open champion had done instead was hole a huge putt for an eagle three to draw level again. In his ignorance Huggett therefore thought he had his putt of a yard or so not just to halve with Casper but to win the Ryder Cup. In it went and, tears pouring down his face, he half collapsed into the arms of his captain. It was only after his recovered that he learned the true situation, and by then Jacklin and Nicklaus were advancing down the 18th fairway, both of them feeling like nothing on earth.
Reproduced from The Official History of The Ryder Cup, 1927-1989, by Michael Williams.