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My Carnoustie

It seems like several lifetimes have passed since I won the last British Open contested at Carnoustie. Back in the summer of 1975, I was a hard-charging twenty-five-year-old from Kansas City with a shock of reddish brown hair and a gap-toothed grin that prompted people to compare me to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I also had a psychology degree from Stanford, a pretty big tee ball and the lofty expectation of becoming the best golfer in the world.

The pundits had me tagged as the next Jack Nicklaus, but by 1975 they'd branded me a "choker" because of my disappointing performances in the majors. I had led the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot after three rounds--and shot a seventy-nine on Sunday to finish tied for fifth. I had briefly led the 1975 Masters, only to self-destruct with a quadruple bogey on the sixteenth hole in the final round. Two months later, I had finished tied for ninth at the U.S. Open at Medinah after leading through the first two rounds.

My victory at Carnoustie, which came in a play-off on the wet and windy afternoon of July 13, 1975, was a major turning point in my career. It put my name in the record books with four legendary golfers--Tommy Armour, Henry Cotton, Ben Hogan and Gary Player--who had won the Open at Carnoustie, and more important, it marked the beginning of my belief in myself. It proved that my golf swing and my mental attitude could hold up under the most intense competition. It gave me the confidence I needed to go head to head against Nicklaus in subsequent majors and helped inspire me to win four more Opens, two Masters and a U.S. Open.

I have to confess that I didn't get a very favorable first impression of Carnoustie. When I arrived to play a practice round on the Sunday before the 1975 Open, the starter, Keith McKenzie, turned me away. Although I had earned an exemption into the opening rounds, the course was reserved that day for practice rounds by players who had made it through the local qualifying process. Back then the Openchampionship ran from Wednesday through Saturday, not Thursday through Sunday like PGA Tour events. I had only Monday and Tuesday for practice rounds.

Worse still, I'd never played a single hole of links golf in my life. Ben Hogan had been in the same predicament before the 1953 Open, but he was able to spend two full weeks practicing at Carnoustie, and he didn't think that was enough time to master it. And unlike Hogan, whose ball had a low, boring trajectory, I am a high ball hitter who prefers the kind of target golf we play here in the States.

Ironically Carnoustie adjusted itself to my game rather than the other way around. The first three days of the Open were virtually windless, and it kept raining at night, which made the greens soft and easy to hold. The scores reflected these benign conditions. Bobby Cole, a twenty-seven-year-old South African, fired a course-record sixty-six in the second round, then matched it in round three to take the lead at twelve under par. Jack Newton, a twenty-five-year-old Australian, set a new course record of sixty-five in round three to get to eleven under. I carded rounds of seventy-one, sixty-seven and sixty-nine, and found myself at nine under, one shot behind Johnny Miller and one shot ahead of Nicklaus and Hale Irwin.

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