Nicklaus and Trevino: Major history

ARDMORE, Pa. -- The toy snake, the wicker baskets, the kid who fell out of the tree. All are typically cited in telling the story of Lee Trevino's playoff victory over Jack Nicklaus.

Their duel at the 1971 U.S. Open is deservedly getting plenty of attention as the tournament returns to the historic Merion Golf Club's East Course this week, where wicker baskets replaced flagsticks on a venue deemed too short even 42 years ago when the Merry Mex dealt the Golden Bear his only playoff defeat in a major.

The Golf Channel recently reaired the final-round ABC telecast, with Chris Schenkel doing play-by-play and Byron Nelson offering color commentary. Among the more fascinating aspects of the broadcast was the network's promo for the Monday 18-hole playoff: It would receive one-hour of coverage starting at 4:30 p.m.

There was so much more to that Open, including Jim Simons, who led after 54 holes and remains the last amateur to finish in the top 10 at a U.S. Open.

There was the playful exchange between Trevino and Nicklaus with a rubber snake prior to their playoff. But often overlooked: Trevino's success against Nicklaus, and not just at Merion.

This year's major championship venues are more than a subtle reminder of Trevino's record. He won three of his six major championships at the remaining major championship sites in 2013: Merion, Muirfield and Oak Hill. And at each one, Nicklaus finished second.

"I loved the underdog role,'' Trevino, 73, said in a recent phone interview with ESPN.com. "I never played well when I was favored. My whole thing was the underdog. I absolutely loved it. I dwelled on it.

"Any time I got locked up with Jack, I would fare pretty good. I think it was because of the bulldog in me. That's the only reason. There's no question in my mind that I was not nearly as talented as Jack. Nobody would dispute that fact.

"Maybe in the wedge department I was much better. But I wasn't a driver of the ball like Jack, couldn't hit long irons like Jack. And I damn sure couldn't putt like that. But I was a hell of a wedge player.

"I always had a temper. My problem when I was playing regular tournaments and missed a shot and made a double-bogey, I would blow up and it would cost me the tournament.

"Not with Jack. I actually laced up my shoes a little tighter, took the belt in one more hole. I don't think he just did that to me. I think he turned everybody on. I happened to be one of the guys who could drive it straighter than most. That was one reason I could stay with him. That right there carried me through.''

Nicklaus' major championship record, of course, is unmatched. He won 18 times, a number that is fresh in the minds of golf fans as Tiger Woods continues his quest to match or surpass him.

The five-year anniversary of Woods' last major title, his 14th, is on the day of the final round of this year's U.S. Open at Merion. But in addition to all those victories, Nicklaus -- who is also 73, born a little more than a month after Trevino -- had 19 runner-up finishes in major championships. Four of them came against Tom Watson. And four came against Lee Trevino, three at the major venues to be contested this year.

1. 1968 U.S. Open, Oak Hill Country Club, Rochester, N.Y. (site of this year's PGA Championship): Nicklaus was the defending U.S. Open champion, having won the prior year at Baltusrol, where Trevino first made his presence known on the national stage, finishing fifth, 8 strokes behind the Golden Bear. The following year at Oak Hill, Trevino trailed Bert Yancey by a single stroke after 54 holes, with Nicklaus 7 back.

For the only time, Nicklaus was not really a factor, but did end up second, 4 strokes behind Trevino.

"The only thing that stands out is I stayed with a family there. Never did it before or since,'' Trevino said. "I like my privacy. I'm an introvert once I leave the golf course. You don't see me much. I give so much when I'm out there I need time to wind down. But I stayed with this family, they had five kids, bed time was 9 p.m. I was a shot behind going into the final round, and found a four-leaf clover. Put that in my back pocket.'

Trevino shot a final-round 69 and became the first person to shoot four rounds in the 60s at a U.S. Open (a feat that would not be matched until 1993). It was the first of his six major titles, the first of his 29 PGA Tour wins.

2. 1971, U.S. Open, Merion Golf Club (East Course), Ardmore, Pa.: By this time, Trevino was an established star. He had seven PGA Tour victories and had won the money title in 1970. In 1971 and 1972, Trevino would win 10 times. But Nicklaus was in his prime.

He had won the PGA Championship (it was played in February that year) for his ninth major title, and tied for second at the Masters. He had already won three times in 1971.

Simons, an amateur from Wake Forest who would go on to win three times on the PGA Tour, shot 65 in the third round to take the 54-hole lead and was paired with Nicklaus in the final round. (Simons shot 76 in the fourth round.)

Trevino, playing in the group ahead, took the lead on the back nine, but missed an 8-foot par putt on the 18th after first backing off because he heard the noise of a spectator -- who had climbed into a tree for a better view -- fall to the ground.

Nicklaus had made a couple of clutch par saves over the closing holes, then missed a 15-footer for birdie on 18 that would have won the title outright.

There would be an 18-hole playoff the next day, where Trevino jokingly tossed a toy snake at Nicklaus while waiting on the first tee. (It is often suggested that Trevino did this to rattle Nicklaus; he actually saw Trevino pull it from his bag and asked for it to be thrown to him.)

Trevino took an early lead when Nicklaus left balls in bunkers at both the second and third holes. Trevino shot 68 to Nicklaus' 71.

"Winning at Merion in the playoff over Jack was special,'' Trevino said. "The reason it was special was even though I had gone on tour full-time in '68, I really didn't feel like I belonged to the fraternity. Most of them were college graduates with great amateur records. I was a dropout, came from a cotton farm. I qualified for the Open in '66, '67 and won it in '68.

"Even though I was pretty good, I didn't feel I was part of the fraternity. When I beat Jack in the playoff, he was the best, quote-unquote. And he was the guy who if you beat, it put a feather in your cap. After I beat him under those circumstances, for the first time, I believed in myself and felt I really belonged.''

Trevino's victory at Merion was the start of a remarkable 20-day run in which he also captured the Canadian Open and then the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.

He won three national opens in a four-week span and was the first player to win those three titles in the same year. He was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year for 1971.

3. 1972 Open Championship, Gullane, Scotland Nicklaus arrived at one of his favorite courses (and the site of this year's Open Championship) -- he had won the 1966 Open at Muirfield and named his course in Ohio, Muirfield Village, after it. he already had victories at the Masters and U.S. Open, a feat rarely accomplished.

Arnold Palmer did it in 1960. Ben Hogan did it in 1951 and 1953. Craig Wood in 1941. Tiger Woods would do it in 2002. That's it.

But a sore neck plagued Nicklaus at the start of the week, and he had fallen off the pace heading into the final round.

"That one killed me,'' Nicklaus said recently of finishing a stroke behind Trevino despite a final-round 66; Trevino shot 71. "I really played a great last round. But no matter what Trevino did, I blew it. After I got myself in the lead, I bogeyed the 12th hole. When I won in '66, I finished 3-4-4 to win. But I finished 4-5-4 which is bogey, par, par. I only have myself to blame.

"There's nothing you can do about anything else. That hurt. It's not often you win the Masters and the U.S. Open going into the British Open and you're at a golf course you love. And you just don't get the job done.''

Trevino holed out four times from off the green during the tournament, including a chip-in for a par on the 17th hole when it appeared he was letting the tournament get away from him.

Tony Jacklin, the 1969 Open winner and 1970 U.S. Open champ, playing with Trevino, was stunned by Trevino's 71st hole chip, and 3-putted for bogey. He would finish third behind Trevino and Nicklaus.

"I loved all links courses,'' Trevino recalled. "No such thing as a bad links course. I'm a bump-and-run guy. They love that type of golf over there. We don't get to play that in America much. Everybody wants to have bunkers in front of greens and false fronts. No such thing in Scotland.

"What I remember the most -- and there wasn't much written about this -- I was kind of out of it in the third round on Friday. We finished on Saturday then. I birdied 14, 15, knocked it on the fly from a bunker on 16. It was shooting to go 30 feet by and I'd make bogey. But the ball stayed in. I birdied 17 and 18.

"So I birdied the final five holes on Friday to get back into the swing of things, and ended up winning the next day.''

In doing so, Trevino became the first player since Palmer in 1962 to defend his Open Championship title.

Two years later, Trevino won his first PGA Championship (at Tanglewood Park in North Carolina), with Nicklaus again finishing runner-up by a single stroke.

It was Trevino's fifth major title, and the fourth time he had won with the Golden Bear his closest pursuer. There are many ways to look at this, of course. Such as why did Nicklaus bring out the best in Trevino?

Or imagine how great Nicklaus' major record might have been had there been no Trevino, no Watson. He finished second to them eight times total.

"I never really worried too much about who was up there because obviously I've said many times the only person you can control is yourself,'' Nicklaus said. "If you don't play well, it didn't make a whole heck of a lot of difference who was there.

"But it seems as though Trevino was there a lot. He is a good player and a tough competitor. I really enjoyed playing against Lee. I loved him as a competitor, because he knew that he was not going to beat himself -- when he got himself in contention and was playing well.

"I always used to go down and look at the leaderboard as you come to the last few holes and you're seeing three guys that can play … you know you better play. You see three guys, they're not going to win, they're going to self-destruct. So you might play a little differently. Everybody who finishes the golf tournament is doing the same thing. They've all got the same nervousness, the same issues. They've got to combat themselves and the golf course.

"But Trevino was just a tough competitor. And he always figured out a way to get the ball in the hole.''

It should be noted that Nicklaus also had great success at this year's major venues. In addition to his runner-up finish to Trevino at Merion, Nicklaus won the individual title in the World Amateur Team Championship played in 1960 at Merion; he won the 1966 Open Championship at Muirfield to complete the Grand Slam; and his 7-stroke victory at Oak Hill in the 1980 PGA Championship at age 40 was a record margin until Rory McIlroy won by 8 last year at Kiawah Island.

Trevino's sixth and final major title came 10 years after his fifth at the 1984 PGA Championship at Shoal Creek. He was 44 years old -- and like Nicklaus -- he made his first and last PGA Tour victories at major championships. (Nicklaus won the 1962 U.S. Open and the 1986 Masters.)

Unlike Nicklaus, Trevino would embrace senior golf, winning another 29 times on the Champions Tour, the same number he won on the PGA Tour.

But he might be remembered best for taking on Nicklaus in the manner in which he did, appearing to never be intimidated.

"On the contrary, I was intimidated,'' Trevino said. "But that was OK. It was like a boxing match. Everybody knows I'm going to get punched out, but maybe I can lay a couple of haymakers.

"And that's the way I felt about it. If you would have taken a poll after we tied at 280 at Merion and you'd have gone through that gallery, what do you think the odds were on me? 6-to-1, 10-to-1? Maybe higher? 'He's got no chance.' That's the way I took it. I'm going to meet him in the middle of the ring and if I happen to catch him and get him a little dizzy, maybe I'll knock him out. That's always how I looked at life.

"I never backed away from anybody.''