Chance of glory gone in a second

A young Simon Owen, who in his heyday could match it with the best in the world. Photo from ODT...
A young Simon Owen, who in his heyday could match it with the best in the world. Photo from ODT files.
It is 30 years this weekend since New Zealand golfer Simon Owen went toe to toe with American great Jack Nicklaus over the hallowed turf of the Old Course at St Andrews, in Scotland. Owen talks to Martin Davidson, of NZPA, about the British Open that got away.

It is true what they say about golf being the cruelest of games.

Just ask Simon Owen, the New Zealander who, fate decreed, should be denied a lifetime of glory as the winner of the British Open, one of the sport's four majors.

Owen more than held his own, too, slotting six birdies in the space of seven holes in the final round of the 1978 British Open at St Andrews to move atop the leaderboard, one clear of his illustrious playing partner with just three holes to play.

After he chipped in for his last birdie at the 15th, a fine drive at the shortish par-4 16th left Owen well positioned to add to his tally.

Nicklaus was another 30m back after opting to use his three wood off the tee and even then he was fortunate to evade a fairway bunker.

Nicklaus, arguably the greatest golfer the world has seen, responded by airmailing a nine iron 118m to within 1.5m of the flag, applying all the pressure on the dapper New Zealander, who settled over the ball with a sand iron in his hand as he surveyed the 90m left to the hole.

"I hit a fantastic drive and was in prime position for my second," Owen recalled.

"I hit one of the best shots I've ever hit in my life, but it just pitched on the back of the green and shot through on the down slope.

"That's what cost me the tournament. A great shot cost me a British Open. It pitched a yard too far.

"The pin was at the back of the green where there was a 3ft downslope.

Had it landed short of it or just past it I would have been fine, because it would've stopped about 15ft from the hole.

"It landed right on the downslope. It was the unluckiest shot as far as my career went that I ever played, because it was such a good shot. I will never forget it."

Owen could not get up and down to save his par while, needless to say, Nicklaus rammed his 1.5m putt home to effect a two-shot swing and grab the lead.

The New Zealander, who won 11 career titles from 1972 to 1991, including two in Europe, had two holes remaining to repair the damage, but the duel was decided on the famed 17th Road Hole, probably the meanest and most unforgiving par-4 in the world.

"Even in a practice round, if you make four there you think all your Christmases have come at once," Owen said.

"It almost plays like a par-5. To try to get on the green in two is at best a 50-50 bet."

Again, Owen was more than a touch unfortunate when he ran his approach on to the putting surface only to watch on as it trickled off the other side.

He did well to get to within 3.5m with his third but missed the par putt, while Nicklaus ever so calmly lipped out with a monster putt from 27m over undulating, severely breaking terrain, then tapped in for par.

In the space of 30 minutes Owen's bold bid had crashed and burned, even though he had done little wrong.

"From being one ahead with three to go, I was now two behind with one to go and I thought to myself 'I haven't done much wrong here'."

He then missed a birdie attempt at the 18th to finish two back of the great man in a share of second alongside the American triumvirate of Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw and Raymond Floyd.

With the 15th of his eventual 18 major titles safely tucked away, Nicklaus took time out immediately afterwards to offer words of consolation to Owen.

"You know, you've played great golf, fantastic golf. You didn't do a thing wrong," Nicklaus counselled.

"That's just links golf and that's the way it pans out. The only thing I can say to you is that I've been second in this tournament six times."

In a sign of just how much times have changed, Owen's share of the purse for his tie for second was a princely £7312.

"In those days, anything in four figures was considered a pretty good cheque."

Owen played in a dozen British Opens as well as the 1979 Masters in the United States and never again contended for a major.

Now 57 and a regular on the European Seniors Tour, he is adamant he dwells on his flirtation with fame only when the subject is raised by others.

But he treasures the memories of testing himself against the best player in history and is happy with his lot.

"I had mixed emotions at the time because although I didn't win I had not really hit a bad shot in those last three holes.

"At the same time, I had played with the greatest player the world has ever seen and I played my heart out and really gave him a run for his money."

His only regret is that he did not have the time that Sunday evening to sit back and enjoy the moment.

Within two hours of putting out, Owen was on a plane to Ireland for a pro-am the next day in Dublin.

Three decades later there is no trace of bitterness or yearning for what might have been.

"I've been in this game long enough to know that no matter how well you are playing, golf is not the sort of game you can totally control, particularly on a links course.

"I never lost a wink of sleep over it. I knew I gave it my best shot." - Martin Davidson


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