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Defining moments 5: Nicklaus defines true sportsmanship

An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much …

The English language is a peculiar beast. While the words ‘sports’ and ‘games’ are broadly similar, ‘sportsmanship’ and ‘gamesmanship’ have distinctly different meanings. The former is all about playing fair and giving consideration to your opponent in the heat of competition; the latter suggests a more conniving attitude that seeks to maximise any available advantage short of outright cheating. For instance, a snooker player who deliberately slows the game down in an attempt to disrupt the rhythm of a dominant opponent is employing gamesmanship; another who points out to the referee that he has touched a ball with his waistcoat, thereby committing a foul, is displaying exemplary sportsmanship.

Sporting gestures are frequently small things, such as a footballer kicking the ball out of play so an injured player can receive immediate treatment, with possession being returned at the restart.

Sometimes such acts occur on a more humanitarian scale: for instance, Niki Lauda’s terrifying crash at the Nurburgring, where other drivers stopped to pull him from the wreckage of his burning car, acts of selflessness over self-interest which saved the Austrian’s life.

And occasionally, displays of sportsmanship can be so magnanimous as to sacrifice victory in favour of doing the right thing – a simple matter of gentlemanly honour.

Royal Birkdale Golf Club, September 1969

The 1969 Ryder Cup started amid a less than gentlemanly atmosphere.

The Americans had enjoyed a long period of dominance over Britain (it would not become ‘Europe’ until 1979) in the competition, having won 12 of the previous 13 meetings, including the last five. The 1967 match in Houston had been as one-sided as the final scoreline of 23½-8½ would suggest. However, with a strong, young team and the added benefit of home advantage this time around, captain Eric Brown was confident Britain stood a genuine chance of securing only its second Ryder Cup win since World War II. So keen was he to grab every possible advantage that he even ordered his players not to help the Americans look for their balls if they were lost in the rough, setting the tone for a series of niggly, ill-tempered spats between the teams.

In spite of this, the match itself developed into a classic, with 17 of the 32 ties going to the final hole and the British side matching their American counterparts shot for shot and point for point. With just one game left to complete, the match score was deadlocked at 15½-15½.

In keeping with the rest of the match, the final rubber between Britain’s Tony Jacklin and the USA’s Jack Nicklaus – arguably the two best players in the world at that time – is closely contested. The tie see-saws first one way then the other as they wrestle for the initiative, neither leading by more than one hole at any point.

With three holes remaining, the pair are level. Nicklaus wins the 16th to edge ahead, but Jacklin then sinks a monster 50-foot putt to send them down the last hole of the last match of the Ryder Cup all square.

As they walk down the fairway together after their tee shots, the American asks his opponent how he is feeling.

“I’m petrified,” Jacklin admits, to which Nicklaus responds, “If it’s any consolation, I feel exactly the same way you do.”

By the time they stride onto the 18th green it resembles a tiny, tightly-packed gladiators’ arena, with the entire crowd gathered several rows deep around its periphery, straining to glimpse the climax of three days of competition. Jacklin’s ball is further from the hole, meaning he must putt first. His attempt from around 25 feet away is perfect in line but not distance, agonisingly stopping just over two feet short. A valiant try, but now he must watch, powerless, as his opponent lines up a putt to win both the tie and the Ryder Cup outright.

Great player though he is, even Nicklaus is struggling to control the adrenaline surging through his veins. He strikes the ball aggressively and watches aghast as it sails past the hole and rolls on a further four feet. Now the shoe is on the other foot; he has to go first, and if he misses and Jacklin succeeds then it will be Britain and not the USA who will claim the Cup.

Big pressure putts are familiar territory for a top golfer; the added expectation of representing a team and a nation in such a historical and prestigious event is not. The situation might destroy a lesser man, but not Nicklaus, who nonchalantly rolls the ball into the centre of the hole and breathes a massive sigh of relief. Now he can do no worse than draw the tie and the overall match, and if nerves get the better of Jacklin, he would claim outright victory for himself and the USA.

One can only imagine what thoughts are racing through Jacklin’s mind as he watches Nicklaus hole out. The putt he faces is relatively straightforward under normal circumstances, but this situation is anything but. This is pressure at its most intense, and with everyone’s eyes trained on him he has nowhere to hide.

However, of all the scenarios playing out in his brain, the one he has not considered is the one that actually occurs. Nicklaus picks his own ball out of the hole, pauses, and then reaches over to pick up his opponent’s marker, conceding the putt. He goes over to the Englishman, offers his hand, and explains, “I don’t think you would have missed that putt, but in these circumstances, I would never give you the opportunity.”

The two golfers leave the course together with an arm around each other’s shoulder to heartfelt and deserved applause from the crowd. It is a fitting end to an honourable match between two great rivals.

In the final analysis, Nicklaus and Jacklin halved their match, and the overall score finished 16-16, the first tie in Ryder Cup history. Under the competition’s rules, this meant the USA, as the current holders, retained the trophy. Nicklaus knew this; he knew it made no material difference to the fate of the Cup whether he himself won or drew. The concession cost nothing in competitive terms, but was of immeasurable sporting value.

Nicklaus explained later, “I believed good sportsmanship should be as much a part of the Ryder Cup as great competition.” Jacklin has always been quick to agree, calling it “the greatest single sporting gesture in golf”.

Not everyone involved saw it that way. American captain Sam Snead was apoplectic: “It was ridiculous to give him that putt. We went over there to win, not to be good ol’ boys.” Fortunately, others were able to see the bigger picture. Leo Fraser, President of the US PGA, graciously agreed the two countries should each retain the trophy for a year, contrary to tradition.

The events of 1969 were echoed eighteen years later when the Americans were defeated on home soil for the first time ever after Larry Nelson graciously conceded a two-foot putt to Bernhard Langer. The captains that year? Nicklaus and Jacklin.

Jack Nicklaus demonstrated that sportsmanship is as much about the way you win as the way you play the game, and that it can even be infectious. Conceding Tony Jacklin’s putt was an instinctive act, a small yet grand gesture from one of golf’s true gentlemen, and one which has deservedly earned a place in sporting legend.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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