15 May 2020 | Men's Australian Open | Professional golf | Feature stories |

Great Australian Moments 7: Battle of the titans

by Martin Blake

Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player image
Nicklaus and Player won 13 Australian Opens between them. Photo: Getty

The time-honored Australian Open has never had a better era than the 1960s and 1970s, when many of the legends of the sport graced it with their presence, and often won.

Times were different, and the big tours were not so all-encompassing as they are now.

Contractually obliged to play a world schedule for the benefit of their equipment sponsors, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player won 13 Australian Opens between them – seven for the South African and six for Nicklaus who remains, arguably at least, the best player in the history of golf.

Nicklaus famously called the Open “the fifth major”, a line that was oft-quoted but ended up proving to be somewhat of a millstone for the tournament in later years. The words, spoken at the presentation of the 1971 Open in Hobart after Nicklaus won, were played up to a parochial audience .

“I’d rather have my name in the record book as Australian Open champion than any tour event in America,’’ said Nicklaus. “I look to the four major championships of the world. Then I look to the Australian Open as the fifth major championship of the world.’’

But there’s no doubt they were heady days for the tournament.

The 1968 Open at Lake Karrinyup outside Perth was emblematic not only of the great men’s rivalry between the South African and the American, but also of the glory days of the Open.

The two greatest players in the world went down the stretch locked together, with Nicklaus ultimately winning by a shot.

The Golden Bear set a new course record with 64 in round two to assume control, but Player shot 65 in round three to take the lead back. Nicklaus, playing in the second-last group, birdied the first five holes on the final day to regain the lead, but Player drew level when he birdied the 16th.

Nicklaus was at the 18th by now, and he wedged to four metres and buried the putt to post 270, 18-under par, and waited for his old rival to come through.

Player needed birdie at 18 for a playoff. He hit a wedge to just outside two metres behind the cup, but his birdie putt curled cross the hole. “Nobody in the world could have made that putt,’’ he would say later.

Nicklaus had his second Australian Open win, but Player would have his time. He’d win the next two. They ended up being honorary starters at Augusta National, along with Arnold Palmer, who also won the Australian Open in that period. Nicklaus' 18 majors is still the all-time record, while Player won nine.

Palmer finished fifth at Karrinyup, and with Kel Nagle and Peter Thomson also inside the top 10 with Nicklaus and Player, there were 40 major wins assembled right there.

No wonder people call them the halcyon days of the century-old Australian Open. And Karrinyup may go down as the best of them all.

Nicklaus and Player in conversation, courtesy of the Masters

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