It was forever dubbed “The Concession.” A two-foot putt at the end of the final round of the 1969 Ryder Cup that would decide whether or not the British team were losers or even competitors. And one single act marked this as the greatest Ryder Cup of them all.
In late September, the American Ryder Cup team flew to the seaside village of Southport, England to take on the British Ryder Cup team at the famous Royal Birkdale course. The Americans, winners of 14 of the previous 18 Cups, were heavily favored, despite sporting only two veteran Ryder Cup players. The team included Frank Beard, the PGA money leader at the time, Miller Barber, Billy Casper, Gene Littler and 29-year-old Jack Nicklaus, who was well on his way to establishing himself as one of the greatest golfers of all time.
The non-playing captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team was 57-year-old Sam Snead, who had a reputation as a loner and one who was never easy to get along with. During most of his playing career, he was never looked upon as a friend to very many fellow players, and his pick as captain raised many eyebrows.
The team that England brought to Royal Birkdale was young and brash. The team, led by young 25-year-old Tony Jacklin, who had just won the British Open, and 20-year-old brash young Scot Bernard Gallacher, who became the youngest player ever to play in Ryder Cup competition, were looking to make a statement and let the world know that the British were making clear inroads in the world of international golf.
The first day of matches brought about a surprise, as U.S. Captain Sam Snead sat out Gene Littler, Billy Casper and Jack Nicklaus for the first round of matches, puzzling just about everyone in golf. The move backfired, as the British shot out to an early 4 1/2-3 1/2 lead. The British team continued to surprise the Americans, ending the second day of matches all tied up at 8 apiece, and going into Sunday’s final round of singles matches, the match was completely up for grabs.
The first fifteen matches of singles play saw the two teams tied headed into the final pairing, pitting U.S. player Jack Nicklaus up against British rival Tony Jacklin.
The two majors winners put on a fierce battle, with the match all even after 15 holes. On 16, Nicklaus birdied to go one-up. On 17, a par-five, Nicklaus put together two masterful shots and was looking at about a 15-putt for eagle. Jacklin had hit his second wide to the right, but the ball took a fortuitous bounce, and landed on the green, some 50 feet away.
Jacklin pored over his putt, then stroked it…through ridges and valleys, and into the cup for an eagle. An obviously stunned Nicklaus then missed his 15-foot attempt, putting the match back all square once again heading into the final hole.
Both Nicklaus and Jacklin were on the final green in two. Jacklin had cozied up his first putt to within two feet of the cup, however Nicklaus’ putt sailed past the cup some five feet. With the Ryder Cup hanging in the balance, Nicklaus firmly stroked the ball smack into the center of the hole, guaranteeing at least a halve of the match, and giving the Americans a tie. Since they were the defending champions, a tie meant that the U.S. would retain the Ryder Cup for another two years.
Jacklin was about to line up his two-foot putt to earn the tie, however Nicklaus approached the cup and removed Jacklin’s ball marker, indicating that he was conceding the putt, and the two shook hands to end the match. That one gesture was considered one of the greatest acts of sportmanship in golfing history, and would mark the beginning of a long and lasting friendship between Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin.
For the U.S., captain Sam Snead was incensed. Snead never believed in “gimmes,” and never forgave Nicklaus for that act of kindness.
However, the rest of golfing world would never forget Nicklaus’ act of kindness, and the world will forever remember “The Concession.”