Draw in the Dunes

Cover image from 'Draw in the Dunes'

'Draw in the Dunes' reflects on 1969 Ryder Cup drama

By Bob Denney, PGA of America

Neil Sagebiel is someone who inspects golf events like a buyer strolling a used car lot. Kicking the tires is not enough. Lift the hood and you will likely find more than you anticipated. For Sagebiel, “Draw in the Dunes” was a “shopping” expedition as he inspected a fascinating Ryder Cup.

Author of “The Longest Shot” (2012, Thomas Dunne Books), the account of the historic 1955 U.S. Open victory by PGA Professional Jack Fleck, Sagebiel has found his stride again. The 1969 Ryder Cup at Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport, England, was more than an enduring symbol of sportsmanship between Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin. There was more to it than that.

“What made a conceded two-foot putt so important, and so memorable,” Sagebiel asked, “that people still talk about it more than four decades later?”

The Ryder Cup was nearly irrelevant in 1969 because of America’s domination. The U.S. had won 14 of 17 competitions coming into Royal Birkdale. The event would either fall off the public awareness scale unless it found a spark.

Sagebiel effectively chronicles events before and during a hotly contested competition, featuring 17 matches concluding on the 18th hole and five more at the 17th. It is more than a shot-by-shot account. This Ryder Cup was like with a fine Italian sauce, with a little of everything in the mix -- drama, controversy and just the right spice of hostility to keep you alert. With all that swirling through the wind at Royal Birkdale, Nicklaus stroked home a birdie putt on the par-5 18th hole before conceding Jacklin’s two-foot birdie putt. That gesture sealed the first draw in Ryder Cup history and Sagebiel follows the impact it generated.

“As time went by, we became much more appreciative of the sportsmanship which [Nicklaus] displayed when he did that,” said Billy Casper, who was 2-1-2 that week. “I think it was one of the ingredients that started the turnaround in the Ryder Cup.”

Nicklaus has always had no second thoughts about his gesture. 

“I don’t care if it was Tony Jacklin," Nicklaus said. "It doesn’t matter who the Ryder Cup player might have been. To put that on his shoulders is wrong. It’s not in the spirit of the game to turn away a whole week’s golf, a whole golfing continent against another golfing continent, on a twenty-inch putt.”

The 16-16 draw, assuring the U.S. would retain possession of the Cup, was the first deadlock in the 42-year history of the Ryder Cup. As the years passed, Jacklin never forgot the noble gesture by his friend. In 2004, he and Nicklaus entered into a business agreement to collaborate on the design of The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla.