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Golf's Top 10 Final Rounds

Some of the most epic acts in golf have been played on the grand stage of the final round
By Jeff Williams | From Inside The NFL, September/October 2017
Golf's Top 10 Final Rounds
Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Jordan Spieth rallied to reclaim his lead in winning this year’s British Open.

When Jordan Spieth won the British Open in dramatic fashion this summer at Royal Birkdale, were you thinking of his splendid opening-round-score of 65? Jack Nicklaus won his final major at the 1986 Masters, but do you remember what he shot in his opening round? Or the score for Arnold Palmer on the first day at the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in Denver, the only U.S. Open the great Palmer ever won? 

Greatness in golf is defined by multiple victories in the game’s major championships. The Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship sit as icons atop golf’s tournament pyramid, and those players who win multiple titles are adorned with the respect and adulation that comes with extreme achievement. They become icons themselves. But while every shot counts exactly the same, it’s the final round that not only determines the winner, but goes down in history as defining that player, that championship. Some of those rounds are so extraordinary, they put a stamp of iconic brilliance on the game’s most accomplished players. 

Spieth was tied for the lead after the first round—and sat alone in first place after rounds two and three—but it was his comeback from near disaster on the final day of play that made his win so memorable. Nicklaus opened the 1986 Masters with a 74, was far afield, and at age 46, was written off as a contender. Palmer posted 72 in his first round at the Open and wasn’t even on the leaderboard until the final round. It was the final 18 holes of those championships that live on in memory well past the trophy ceremonies. Be it the standard Sunday finish, a Monday playoff or, in Palmer’s case, a two-round Saturday final in the U.S. Open, the conclusion of some rounds are just plain epic. Here are the 10 best.

1. Nicklaus Wins His Final Major 

It was the second Sunday of April 1986, and Jack Nicklaus was four shots off the lead in the Masters. He was 46, and had not won a major tournament in six years. Time was running out on the greatest of careers. That morning his son Steve called him.

“What do you think Pops?” asked Steve.

“I said ‘66 will tie, 65 will win,’ ” said Nicklaus.

Guess what?

Greg Norman was the leader that Sunday and a host of the best players in the world crowded the leaderboard—Seve Ballesteros, Nick Price, Tom Watson, Tom Kite and the emerging Payne Stewart. Nicklaus, whose legacy was to never miss a crucial putt in a major, didn’t get off to a great start in the final round and 65 seemed no more than a pipe dream after he missed relatively short birdie chances at six, seven and eight. Then, on the ninth, a wedge gave him an 11-footer. His caddie, son Jack Jr., thought the putt was left edge. Jack thought the line was a little farther out to the left. He went with his gut and the putt dropped in on the left side for a birdie. 

Another birdie followed on the par-4 10th, where Nicklaus’ wayward drive to the right stayed in play when it caromed off a spectator. The Golden Bear carded another birdie at the 11th. A bogey at the 12th was maddening, yet he answered with a bird on the next hole. Standing in the fairway after a huge drive on the par-5 15th, Jack turned to his son and said: “How far would a three go here?”

Nicklaus arrowed a 4-iron to 12 feet and drilled it for an eagle 3.

By the time he stepped up to the 16th tee, the huge crowd following him was at a fever pitch. He nearly holed his tee shot as an explosion of sound from the “patrons” raced up the hill and shook the clubhouse. It was birdie again on 17, and after a two-putt par on 18, he posted his 65 and had the lead. 

Both Kite and Norman had putts to tie him on 18. Both missed, giving Nicklaus his sixth Green Jacket and 18th and final major.

Nicklaus, who had not won a tournament since 1982, was caught up in the emotion of it all, and determined to put one last exclamation point on his career. 

“I said last week I’m not going to quit playing golf when I’m playing this badly,” Nicklaus said to a packed press room. “I’ve played too well for too long to let a short period of time ruin my golf game. I said that I occasionally want to be as good as I once was.”

2. Palmer’s U.S. Open Comeback

Arnold Palmer was well on his way to establishing Arnie’s Army in 1960, having won his second Masters in April, one of eight victories he would post that year alone. But nothing was quite as spectacular as his first and only victory in the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in Denver.

Back then the U.S. Open concluded with 36 holes on Saturday, and after the first 18 in the morning Palmer trailed leader Mike Souchak by seven shots. Coming from seven strokes behind in the final round to win had never been done before. 

In the locker room before the final round Palmer was having a chat with friend and Pittsburgh sports writer Bob Drum. Palmer ventured that a 280 score for 72 holes was often the winning total for a U.S. Open. He would have to shoot a 65 in the final round to reach that number. He asked Drum what he thought a 65 would do for him.

“For you, nothing,” the crusty Drum replied. “280 won’t do you one damn bit of good. You are too far back.”

Annoyed and fired up by the remark, Palmer went to the first tee determined to play the aggressive style that was rapidly becoming his trademark. The first hole at Cherry Hills was a short, downhill par-4 of about 320 yards, with water defending the green. Palmer had found that water with his opening tee shot of the tournament and made double bogey, but that wasn’t going to hold him back this day. With his whiplash swing, he whaled away with his driver and the ball rolled onto the green. He two-putted for a birdie. “There was an explosive cheer from the gallery on the tee and around the green,” the late Palmer once said of that opening tee shot. “Marching off the tee, I felt a powerful surge of adrenaline.”

Palmer would post a 30 on the front nine despite a bogey on the eighth hole. It was there he spotted Drum in the gallery. “I asked him, ‘Well, well, what are you doing here, since I have no chance?’ ”

Palmer cooled down on the back nine, but his 35 there allowed him to put up the best final round in Open history to date, a 65. Souchak missed a number of putts down the stretch, giving Palmer the win over an amateur who would become his greatest rival—Jack Nicklaus.

3. Watson’s British Duel

The 1977 Open Championship at Turnberry will forever be known as The Duel in Sun. Extraordinary weather conditions—warmth, sunshine, little wind—provided the perfect milieu for two of the greatest golfers in history to go at each other tooth and nail for the final two rounds.

When Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus reached the 16th tee in that final round, having distanced themselves by miles from the field, Watson was moved to say this to Nicklaus: “This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?” Nicklaus replied, “You bet.”

The two golfers each shot 65 in the third round to share the 54-hole lead, three shots ahead of Ben Crenshaw. But they quickly bolted ahead of Crenshaw and everyone else, and Nicklaus took a three-shot lead after four holes with a pair of birdies while Watson played that stretch in one over. But Watson got back to even with a birdie on the eighth, his putt slamming with typical aggressiveness into the back of the cup.

The thousands of fans following the pair, their ardor ramped up by the exhilarating display, broke through the ropes on the ninth fairway to get a better view, leading to a 15-minute delay so that the marshals could regain control. That delay seemed to dampen Watson’s charge, and he made bogey, putting him down by a stroke. Nicklaus stretched his lead to two after a birdie on the 12th, then Watson clawed one stroke closer with a birdie on 13. 

Then came the decisive moment. Watson just missed the green on the par-3 15th, leaving him about 60 feet to the hole. In a typical links play, Watson used his putter, giving the ball a good smack. It took a startling hop into the air before reaching the green, then raced toward the cup at what seemed breakneck speed. The ball clattered into the flagstick square on and fell into the hole for a birdie. Nicklaus missed his far shorter birdie putt, and the two were all square with three to play. 

Watson got home in two on the par-5 17th and two-putted for birdie while Nicklaus shockingly missed a three-footer and had to settle for a par. Watson led by a stroke.

The final hole was nothing short of magical. Watson hit a perfect 1-iron off the tee and a 7-iron that came to rest two feet from the pin. Nicklaus had hit a wayward drive into the rough and near a gorse bush. He looked all but doomed. He managed to gouge a shot from there onto the green, 35 feet from the hole. And wouldn’t you know it, he canned that putt for birdie and a round of 66. The enormous gallery went ballistic, and Nicklaus, with his characteristic sportsmanship, held up his hands to try to settle them down.

Watson tapped in the most nervous two-footer of his career for a 65 and possession of the Claret Jug. Even more memorably, Nicklaus threw his arm around Watson’s shoulders as the two giants of the game strode off the green toward the scorer’s tent. 

4. Stenson vs. Mickelson 

Sunday at the 2016 Open Championship at Royal Troon was two Triple Crown thoroughbreds against a field of plow horses. Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson broke from the gate and left everyone else 20 lengths behind by the first turn. By the middle of the front nine on that final round the pair were seven shots clear of the field. “By the sixth hole, it was pretty obvious it was going to be just us,” said Mickelson.

There were six lead changes in the first 11 holes. Stenson led by a shot at the start of the round, but that quickly changed when Mickelson birdied the first hole while Stenson made bogey. Stenson rallied with birdies on the second, the third, the fourth, the sixth and the eighth. Mickelson eagled the fourth and birdied the sixth, but still trailed by a shot, and they were tied going to the 14th hole after Stenson’s bogey on the 11th.

Coming down the stretch, the two were neck and neck, bouncing off each other. Stenson birdied 14 to go up by one, and then put down the Hammer of Thor on the 15th when he drained a 51-footer for birdie to lead by two strokes. Stenson birdied the 16th and the 18th to post a 63, the lowest final round by a winner in the history of the Open, 20-under par with a total score of 264. Mickelson’s final round of 67 gave him a total of 267, equalling the previous record low at the tournament. He simply couldn’t overcome Stenson’s astonishing 10 birdies in the final 18 and lost by a staggering three shots. “That is the best I have ever played and not won,” Mickelson said. “I threw everything at him that I could.”

“I felt that this was going to be my turn,” said Stenson in his monotone that betrays his sense of joy and masks his quick wit. “It makes it even more special to beat a competitor like Phil. He’s been one of the best to play the game.”    

5. Spieth Stays On Course

Starting the fourth round of the 2017 British Open at Royal Birkdale in July, Jordan Spieth held a three-shot lead over Matt Kuchar. But he started coming off the rails on the front nine, making three bogies and a birdie through the first six holes.

On the seventh tee, his longtime caddie Michael Greller reminded him of who he is. Greller recalled that Spieth had been vacationing over the Fourth of July in Los Cabos in the company of some of the greatest athletes ever—Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, Russell Wilson and his buddy Fred Couples, among others. “We walked off 7 tee box, and he made me come back,” said Spieth. “He said, ‘I’ve got something to say to you.’ He said, ‘Do you remember that group you were with? You’re that caliber of an athlete. But I need you to believe that right now because you’re in a great position in this tournament. This is a new tournament. We’re starting over here.’ ”

It didn’t quite start there. Spieth made another bogey on the ninth, and then on the 13th he hit a horrendous drive miles wide right into a sand dune, plugged and dead. From there, he made the most momentous penalty drop of the modern era. Taking relief from an unplayable lie that was so bad that it took 20 minutes to figure out a drop point, Spieth was able to hit a three-iron from the driving range—which was inbounds—back into play on the extremely difficult par-4. From there he hit a decent pitch and sank the most important bogey putt of his career.

That bogey allowed Kuchar, who made par, to take a one-shot lead. But it also fueled Spieth’s belief in himself, a seed planted six holes earlier by his caddie.

Spieth nearly made an ace on the 14th and tapped in for birdie. On the next hole, a par-5, he drained a 50-foot putt for eagle. He followed that with a 20-footer for birdie on the par-4 16th, and on the 17th it was another birdie. Five under in four holes. Spieth had left Kuchar and the rest of the field in his dust. After a tap-in par to close the round, Spieth claimed his third major championship at the age of 23, a feat that only Jack Nicklaus had accomplished.

This wasn’t so much an epic rally to overtake the field as it was an epic effort to overcome himself. “Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps are the greatest to ever do what they did, and I’m not,” Spieth said. “But if you believe you are, then you are almost as good as being that.”

His caddie believed, and that’s where it started.

6. Tiger’s PGA Playoff

Tiger Woods was smack dab in the middle of the greatest run of his magnificent career when he came to the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club outside of Louisville. He had won the U.S. Open and British Open by extraordinary margins and was fast establishing himself as one of the greatest players of all time. He was golf’s five-star general. But when he started the final round of the final major of the season, he was up against an enlisted man who would not back down. Bob May was a shot back, and their Sunday duel would go down as one of golf’s all-time best.

It was no small irony that Woods and May would find themselves paired. Both had grown up in Southern California and May, seven years older than Woods, had been a dominant junior and amateur player, so much so that he had become Woods’ idol. A young Tiger had even pinned newspaper clips of May’s exploits on his bedroom wall. 

Unexpectedly, May had the lead after the par-5 second hole where he made birdie to Woods’ bogey. May was up by two after a birdie on the fourth, but Woods drew back to even with birdies on seven and eight. 

The quality of the golf was brilliant and birdies abounded. The 15th would prove pivotal. Woods missed the green and May had maybe 12 feet for birdie. Woods holed a 15-footer for par and May missed. Woods made birdie on the 17th to draw the match even, and they both made birdie on the 18th. The championship would be decided by the first three-hole playoff in PGA Championship history. 

It began on the 16th and produced one of Tiger’s supreme moments. He knew his 20-footer for birdie was destined for the hole when it was five feet away. He virtually danced after it, pointing his index finger at the cup. In it dropped. Woods was up by a stroke. Both scrambled to make pars on the last two holes, but Woods had prevailed. 

After winning the U.S. Open by 15 strokes and the British Open by eight, Woods saw this victory as the most exhilarating. “This was probably the most exciting from a player’s standpoint,” he said. “The fact you are playing at a level that is so high, and knowing the fact that par is not going to win a hole.”

7. Norman Takes On The World

Greg Norman, he of the epic losses in major championships, put on his own epic performance to win the British Open at Royal St. Georges in the south of England in 1993. He had spent his entire career trying to live up to his own high expectations and live down his own spectacular failures. He had one major to his credit, the 1986 British Open at Turnberry where nary one of the best players in the world was there at the end to challenge him. But at St. Georges they were all there. Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Corey Pavin, Fred Couples, Nick Price and the blossoming Ernie Els, all in the hunt on the final. 

The first day of the tournament was nasty, and Norman started the road to the championship with a double bogey, hitting his tee shot into nearly waist-high hay. But after three rounds, Norman had clawed into contention, trailing Faldo and Pavin by a stroke. Then, in the final 18, he went on a tear. 

His final round started with a birdie at the first hole. After two more Norman had a two-shot lead after the sixth hole, and it would never be less than a shot for the rest of the day. His iron play was superb, his putting spot on, save for missing a 14-inch par putt on the 17th. In the end, after seven birdies and a solitary bogey, he posted a six-under-par 64 to win by two shots over Faldo.

“I am in awe of myself,” Norman said when it was all over, a glint in his eye. “In my entire career I can honestly say that I never have gone around a golf course and not missed a shot. But today I hit every iron perfect, every drive perfect.”

And in doing so he earned his second, and final major.

8. Player’s Magic Sunday

Almost as old as the magnolia trees that line the entrance to the Augusta National Golf Club is the maxim “the Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday.” And that adage rang true in 1978 when Gary Player, at age 42, charged from behind on the final day. 

He started the round seven strokes back, with Tom Watson, Hubert Green and Rod Funseth taking turns at the top of the leaderboard. Player, ever the bubbly enthusiast, still felt he had a chance, even though he was teeing off two hours before the leaders.

He had been playing well through three rounds without making many putts. By his account, they had to start going in. “One of the things I am is an eternal optimist,” he said. “I was playing excellent golf and I hadn’t made any putts. But you have to keep on aiming at them.”

And so he did. Player shot 34 on the front nine, which didn’t make a big dent in the lead, but the frontrunners were not pulling away. On the difficult tenth hole, Player posted a rare birdie with a curling 25-footer. On the devilish par-3 12th he holed it from 15 feet. He hit the par-5 13th in two and his eagle putt burned the edge, but it was a gimme birdie. He two-putted the par-5 15th from 75 feet for another birdie. In went another 15-footer on the 16th. On the 18th, yet another 15-footer dropped for birdie, giving him a round of 64.

As Player had blitzed forward, the leaders backed up, but they all had putts on the 18th hole to tie him. Funseth missed from 15 feet, Watson from 10. Agonizingly, Green missed a three-footer, one of golf’s most memorable yips. Instead of facing a playoff, Player donned his third green jacket, giving him his ninth and final major championship. 

“This is a course of great momentum,” Player would say later. “That’s why there have been so many great comebacks in Masters history. And when you come to the final nine holes on Sunday afternoon, you really never know what will happen.”

9. Trevino Takes Down Nicklaus

In 1971, Jack Nicklaus got snakebit at the U.S. Open at Merion, the iconic championship course in suburban Philadelphia. The snake charmer was Lee Trevino. 

The two were tied after 72 holes, with Trevino shooting 69-69 the first two rounds. They would go to an 18-hole playoff on Monday, a hot, humid, sticky day. As Trevino took a few warm-up swings, his golf glove was squishy, so he went to his bag for a new one. There he found a fresh glove and a novel idea.

“I reached into my bag to get another one and there was the rubber snake in the bag,” Trevino would say. He had been using the snake and a hatchet as props to show the galleries how deep the notorious U.S. Open rough was. “I picked the snake up by its tail and Jack is over on the side of the tee and was kind of laughing. So I throw the snake over to Jack.”

Nicklaus, who was sitting on a seat-stick, wasn’t sure the snake was real and he laughed nervously. After taking a few seconds to figure out it was rubber, Nicklaus tossed it back.

Trevino thought he might have been punished for his prank when he made bogey on the first hole, but then Nicklaus had difficulty in the bunkers on the next two holes to make bogey and double bogey. “I was very nervous, very nervous,” said Trevino.

“I bogied No. 1 right off the bat, Jack bogied two by leaving it in the bunker. We went to three and he left it in the bunker again. When we went to the fourth hole I said he might be choking worse than I am.”

After the sixth hole, a storm delayed play. And it steeled Trevino’s confidence, knowing he had a better chance of holding his approaches on the softened greens. He would make three birdies over the next 12 holes, post a 68 to Nicklaus’ 71 and win his second U.S. Open.

“Everyone has someone who drives them,” Trevino would say years later. “Jack drove me. I could have pneumonia, but if I was paired with Jack, let’s go. He was the best. And Jack brought the best out of me every time we played.”  

10. Venturi’s Near-Death Win

Sports is rarely a matter of life and death. But at the 1964 U.S. Open at the Congressional Country Club, it was for Ken Venturi. The accomplished pro seemed destined for major championship greatness when injuries from an auto accident in 1961 severely impacted his game. By the time 1964 rolled around, he only got into the tournament by going through both the local and sectional qualifiers. After two rounds he was six shots off the lead. The 1964 Open would be the final one with a 36-hole finish on Saturday, and Venturi certainly made it an epic one, heroically staggering home in the final round for the victory.

The temperature that day was about 100 degrees. Ray Floyd, his playing partner, remembers it vividly. “You could leave your hotel room with a fresh shirt and be soaked by the time you got to your car.”   

Venturi fired a brilliant 66 in the morning round, but in the closing holes his body started to succumb to the trying conditions. He bogied the 17th and 18th, teetering as he walked to the scorer’s tent. He was taken to the clubhouse where a doctor had him wrapped in cold towels and gave him salt pills. He laid on the floor in front of his locker. Then the doctor told him he should withdraw. Playing the afternoon round could be fatal.

“It’s better than the way I’d been living,” Venturi recalled. “I’m going out there.”

Was he going to win? Heck, was he going to finish? Was he going to live?

Walking slowly, uncertainly, Venturi played steadily. When he birdied the ninth hole, he had the lead. “He was making shots, you knew it was destiny, that he’s going to get through here,” said Floyd. 

By the time he started down the hill on the 18th, Venturi knew the Open was his.  He took off his white tam hat, which had been pulled down tight during the round to keep as much sun off his face as he could. 

When his final putt dropped for a round of 70, it was Floyd who bent over to take the ball out of the hole. Floyd had tears in his eyes. When Venturi saw that, he said, “I lost it.”

It was a staggering final day of the U.S. Open, and a staggering victory for Venturi. 

Jeff Williams is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.


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