Tony Jacklin looked like another senior duffer as he made small talk one summer morning in the pro shop of the Bradenton Country Club. But 50 years ago, Jacklin ranked with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino as one of the greatest golfers in the world, winning the British Open in 1969 and, in 1970, becoming the first player from England in nearly 50 years to win the U.S. Open. In addition to 30 professional wins, Jacklin captained the European Ryder Cup team to its greatest success, winning three times over the Americans. He is equally known for his epic Ryder Cup battle against Nicklaus in 1972 in which the Golden Bear conceded the final putt to Jacklin in a display of sportsmanship that is memorialized in golfing lore as “The Concession.”
These days, Jacklin, 74, still swings the sticks, but devotes more of his time to artistic woodworking, as well as to designing and renovating golf courses (including his beloved Bradenton Country Club) and co-writing his first novel, Bad Lies, published this summer to good reviews.
“I grew up in Scunthorpe, England. My father was a lorry driver. We didn’t have much money. I fashioned balls out of pieces of rubber hose and used to belt these bits of tubing off the gate in our driveway. The closest golf course was five miles from our house. I’d ride my bike over in the summer, cut the greens in the morning and watch the shop in the afternoon, but there was plenty of time to pitch, chip and putt. In 1957, my father took me to the Ryder Cup. It was the first time I had ever seen world-class players and I was so inspired that when we came home I went straight to the course and played nine holes as night was falling. It was the best round of golf in my life.
“Golf is a microcosm of life. It’s filled with ups and downs and every day you start over. It takes infinite patience and hard work. You don’t need any other hobbies if you want to be good at golf. I think what makes it the greatest sport is that you can play it when you’re 8 and when you’re 80. You can play with your grandkids and your heroes. You couldn’t get out on the tennis court with Roger Federer, but you could play a round with Jack Nicklaus.
“I was 25 when I won my first major championship. In 1972, I was on the verge of winning my second U.S. Open, but Lee Trevino chipped in five times over the last two rounds, including one on the 17th hole of the last day. I took three putts from 15 feet and lost the match. Before that, I never appreciated how much of a factor luck can be. It took me a long time to get over that day.
“Life is full of setbacks. In 1988, my wife Vivien was driving when she died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. We had been married since 1966 and had a great relationship. I was in complete shock. My good friend [the actor] Sean Connery took care of all the arrangements and helped get me through the first days.
“You lose a love like that and you wonder if you’ll ever find happiness again. But I was fortunate. Not long after, I met Astrid and we have been married 30 years. She’s my best friend. I started doing marquetry [a form of inlaid woodworking] when I was a kid in England to keep me occupied over the long winters. I am proud to have sold many of my pieces.
“If I had one regret, it was that I should have moved to America much sooner. My agent, Mark McCormack, the founder of IMG, already had his American stars and he wanted me in Europe. As a result, I had to make six to eight trips to the United States over the season, which absolutely wore me out. It took me a long time to learn that soldiering on when you’re exhausted is the wrong way to go about things. You’ve got to listen to yourself and trust what you are feeling.
“For eight years, my family and I lived on the island of Jersey between England and France—basically 60,000 alcoholics clinging to a rock. We finally came over for good in 1993 and spent two years experiencing what a big, beautiful place this is. Twenty-three years ago, we moved right here next to the Bradenton Country Club. I am the happiest I have ever been. The only sad part is that when you get past 65, life seems to go by so fast. It makes you take pleasure in every day.”