The Black Knight’s statement - 50 years ago at Carnoustie
by M. James Ward
So much attention in the lead-up to this year's Open Championship has focused on a few items of note. Clearly, the implosion of Frenchman Jean van de Velde at the 1999 Open during his play at the 18th hole is indelibly etched in golf's history books. There's also been attention paid to the epic win by Ben Hogan in 1953 during his one-time playing in the event. There's also Tom Watson's first major coming in 1975 at Carnoustie serving as the springboard for other majors, including four more Opens in the years ahead.
But, one past Open at the Angus links has received scant attention and it marks a milestone in time with its 50th anniversary.
The eventual winner in 1968 was Gary Player claiming his second Open victory to go along with the one he earned nine years earlier at Muirfield in 1959. A few “golf experts” viewed Player’s first major triumph as an aberration given his lack of physical size -- 5'6" 150-lbs. But the South African's firm belief in himself coupled with his tireless work ethic proved all naysayers in error.
After his win at Muirfield, Player would become the first non-American to win the Masters in 1961, winning the PGA Championship in 1962 and then claiming the US Open in 1965 becoming just the third golfer -- after Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan -- to have won all of the Grand Slam events in a career. Incidentally, the site of Player's US Open victory -- Bellerive in St. Louis -- will stage the PGA Championship this August.
Much of the discussion of golf in the 1960s was focused on The Big Three -- Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Player. Mark McCormack and his company International Management Group (IMG) superbly managed the trio. As the lone non-American, Player was often viewed as the third wheel but his golfing talents clearly demonstrated the wherewithal to easily match that of Palmer and be a fierce rival to the growing presence of Nicklaus.
Carnoustie has always been viewed as the most demanding links course in the Open rota and the 1968 championship seemed to be the perfect venue for the talents of Nicklaus. The Golden Bear won his first Open in 1966 at Muirfield at age 26, joining Player as the fourth golfer to have won all the Grand Slam events in a career. Carnoustie's muscular presentation seemed tailor made for both the physical and mental skills Nicklaus possessed.
The 1968 Open marked the initiation of a few items of note. All past champions were exempt into the event without having to pre-qualify although years later an age restriction is now included. There was also a 54-hole cut provision which has since been removed. Unbelievably, the Open was played in consecutive weeks with the final major championship of the year, the PGA Championship. The 1968 Open marked the fifth and final time in the 1960's that the events would be placed in a back-to-back manner. The PGA of America would move its flagship to August where it's been played since with just one exception coming in 1971 in Florida. To illustrate the difference in purses, the Greater Milwaukee, played the same week as The Open at Carnoustie, provided a first prize of $40,000 for the winner. The Open's top prize was £3,000, roughly $7,200 back then.
Playing for the first time in the 1968 event was two-time US Open champion Bill Casper. Although not included in the calculus with golf's "Big Three" the golfing skills of Casper were no less formidable. After three rounds at Carnoustie Casper was the leader by one shot over 1963 Open winner Bob Charles. But both Casper and Charles would fail to show brilliance during the final round with each man fading – Casper scoring a disappointing 78 and Charles adding an equally lackluster 76.
The penultimate group for the final round had Player and Nicklaus paired and that ultimately proved to be where the contest would be decided. Even after surrendering a major advantage off the tee to the stronger Nicklaus, Player was especially deft around the greens. At the par-5 14th during the final round the tide would turn, as Player would reach the green in two mighty blows, with his second finishing a mere two-feet away. The same hole had proven to be a benefit to the South African the day prior as he eagled it as well.
Nicklaus would make a bold move down the stretch, eschewing caution and boldly driving over the far side of the burn at the par-4 17th. However, his sand wedge approach was merely a pedestrian play and Player was able to finish off the event and earn a two-stroke victory with Nicklaus and Charles sharing 2nd place.
Over the years Player would add four additional majors, including a third Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 1974. His 9th and final major coming in a tour de force manner overcoming a final round deficit of seven strokes in firing a final round 64 to claim his 3rd green jacket at the 1978 Masters.
In the modern era Player trails only Nicklaus – 19 to 24 years – in terms of the length of time between winning one's first to final major. He, along with Nicklaus, are among eight golfers having won majors in three different decades.To look at Player today at age 82 is to see a physical marvel linked with the keenest of minds. The 50th anniversary of the South African's triumph at Carnoustie is one rightly worth remembering.