I won’t be at Muirfield for The Open this year. In fact, I’ve very rarely been back there since I beat Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin in 1972, and not at all since I finished second to Tom Watson in 1980. But there’s no need for me to visit. I have plenty of memories. Man, do I have memories.
I grew up playing in the wind at Tenison Park in Dallas, Texas – a course that didn’t have any irrigation. I had an extremely strong grip and I would bump-and-run the ball in on those bone-dry fairways. It was perfect preparation because, in those days, they didn’t water the courses in the UK either.
While I had never even been to Muirfield before the 1972 Championship, I had won the Open the year before at Royal Birkdale so I knew what to expect. In any case, any time I got on a plane to go to the UK, I knew what type of course I would find and I loved it. Links was my kind of golf.
Because of my short, compact swing, the bad weather didn’t bother me at all. In fact, the more clothes I put on, the more compact my swing got. I didn’t know what the weather would be like when I got there, but I remember that I wanted it to be bad – the worse the better as far as I was concerned!
This was also the first time in my career where I practised exclusively the week before a major championship. In the past, I had always got myself ready for a major by playing in a tournament, the week before; but I knew I needed to practise for this one, and so I asked my Texas golf and military friend Orville Moody to find a place where I could train in peace and privacy. He knew of a local course on a nearby Army base in Central Texas that had not yet opened. I played 18 holes every morning, literally running after every shot. I would then come home, have lunch and hit balls for a couple of hours. After that, I’d go swimming with the kids. Then, at 4pm, I’d go out and play some more. I did that for a whole week, mainly practising bump-and-run shots.
When I finally arrived in East Lothian, they were in the middle of a horrible drought. Everything was brown, burned and dead. But that didn’t matter to me. I was there to play and to compete and to survive. That’s what I did best. I will tell you this, though. As the defending champ, I didn’t have as much pressure on me as most people thought. After all, defending champs very seldom repeat. I was just trying to defend my title with a little honour and trying not to make a fool of myself.
In all honesty, Jack [Nicklaus] was under more pressure because he’d not only won the first two majors of the year, he’d also won at Muirfield in 1966. But Jack was the most talented guy in the world, so he could handle it. In hindsight, it was probably a good thing it never crossed my mind that, in order to win, I would have to stop him achieving his Grand Slam.
Having said that, I sure wasn’t intimidated or fearful of Jack. Hell, I had beaten him in an 18-hole playoff for the US Open at Merion the year before, which was the most satisfying win of my career. However, when I got to Muirfield, I never saw Jack and never even talked to him. We had opposite tee times and were never paired together for any of the rounds. You have to remember, back then the players didn’t eat together. We just ate at the house where we were staying and then headed to the course to play.
At the start of the second round, I chipped in for a birdie on the 2nd hole. In those days, I expected to chip in every time. It was the start of an extraordinary chipping week. On Friday, my boy [Tony] Jacklin looked to be gone. He was six shots ahead of me at one point, but then I charged up the leaderboard, finishing with five birdies in a row on the back nine, for a 66.
Of course, the story of that week is always going to be my four chip-ins. A couple of them were just gifts from the gods. My chip on the 16th in the third round was really something. I was in the right bunker, on a downslope. I had no shot to a very shallow pin and no green to work with. My plan was to blow it 30 feet past the hole, let it roll back, take my putt for bogey and get out of there. To make sure I got it out of the sand, I hit it hard and watched it fly high into the air. The next thing I knew, it had gone into the hole on the fly for a birdie. Two holes later, on the 18th, I was behind the hole, but this time I had some green to work with. I just chipped on and watched it roll in for another birdie.
On the final day, of course, the crucial chip-in was on the 17th hole. I was tied with Jacklin, and Jack was one stroke back. I was over the back of the green and Tony motioned for me to play even though I wasn’t farthest away because that was the courtesy in those days. After I chipped in again, he got rattled and then three-putted from close range. The fans weren’t rooting for him as much as you might think. He was English and they were Scottish, for a start. Plus, they didn’t get to see many short Mexicans like me over there very often. I always felt they were on my side.
To be honest, I was pretty hot, pretty mad after that chip shot went in. I really thought I had messed up that hole and my chance to win. I didn’t brag, but I probably did let out a few four-letter words. Tony went crazy afterwards. He wanted to quit. He said out loud that the game wasn’t fair, that he thought the golf gods were against him and that he didn’t want to play anymore. He could play, though, that man. He could really play. Of course, Jack made a final round charge. I knew he would, but he messed up when he bogeyed the 16th and didn’t birdie the par-5 17th. Then it was mine.
We had quite a celebration after I won. Oh, man, did we ever. We were staying at the Yester House, an old castle, near Gifford. We had six couples staying with us, all from my hometown of El Paso. They were all my friends, plus Claudia [first wife]. Believe me, we could really celebrate. In fact, I’m the only pro who ever won back-to-back Open Championships and lost money both times!
I’ll certainly watch The Open this year on TV. I’ll remember the golf course and the holes and the shots and the wins. The fans were always great to me and the other Americans because they love the shot-makers – those guys who can do it in any type of conditions.
That’s what I did. I overcame whatever was in front of me. While I’ll miss it in person, I’ll always be at Muirfield in spirit.