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Look Back With Bernard Gallacher: His 5 Toughest Opponents

Golf Care, 27th July 2020

bernard gallacher toughest opponents

During his long career, Bernard Gallacher has come up against some of the biggest names in golf and beaten one or two legends along the way.

In the first article of our Look Back With Bernard Gallacher series, we run through his 5 toughest opponents.

Bernard has only actually lost to one of these opponents – and one of them still sends him a Christmas card every year.

5. Charles Coody

Achievements: Won 1971 Masters; Finished 5th at 1971 Open

I played Charles Coody at Old Warson Country Club in St. Louis, Missouri in the 1971 Ryder Cup. I was only 22 years old and Eric Brown was our captain.

Old Warson Country Club is very exclusive and although the crowd was quite vocal, there weren’t as many spectators as there are at Ryder Cups today.

I played Dave Stockton in the morning singles and we finished all square. In the afternoon, I played Charles who had won the Masters a few months earlier and I played brilliantly. I beat him 2 & 1 and it was an important victory for me.

I was young and didn’t care about reputations. I was always focused on playing the course rather than the player. As far as I was concerned, this was an opportunity to play the reigning Masters champion and I had nothing to lose. I played well and finished him off.

Charles was a solid and steady player. He had a reputation as a great putter and he kept me on my toes – I never felt like I had a free putt, I always felt he would hole it. I learnt a lot from watching him.

We didn’t know much about him in Britain but when he won the Masters, his stock rose massively. He had a long career and won plenty of tournaments. If I lost to the Masters champion, people would just say “OK”. But I was determined for that not to happen!

I enjoyed playing the Americans. We were a British tour in those days – no one played in America or travelled much, so the Ryder Cup allowed you to test yourself against the world’s best players. That’s what you want as a professional and I embraced the challenge.

4. Lee Trevino

Achievements: Won six majors; One of only four golfers to win the U.S. Open, The Open Championship and PGA Championship twice

I didn’t play in the morning singles and was itching to get out there. Eric Brown came to me and said I was playing Lee Trevino in the afternoon. I had played him in an exhibition match at Dalmahoy in Scotland a few months earlier and beat him.

Eric knew that and, although he couldn’t pick who I played, when he said I was playing Trevino in the afternoon, he felt it worked out well.

I had a lot of respect for Lee, but I wasn’t intimidated because I’d played against him and knew his game.

I got off to a fast start against him – I shot 32 on the front 9 and I was 3 or 4 up. The match then became very tight and I was hanging on towards the end, but I won 4 & 3.

Eric came up to me at the end, hugged me and said: “That was a great victory”. Britain should have won the afternoon singles match, but it finished a draw. We just let it slip, but a draw was a good result for us in those days.

Lee had won the US Open the year before and won the British and US Open two years later, so to beat him was a brilliant achievement. He was a real shot-maker and straight hitter who had his own style of play. That’s why he did well at seaside courses, because he could hit it high or low and was a wonderful putter.

As a person, he was quite a character. A lot of players didn’t want to play against him because he was a joker who joined in with the crowd. Players thought he was trying to put them off, but I found it funny playing against him.

He was a sensational golfer but you can beat anybody on your day – and that’s what happened in 1969.

3. Lanny Wadkins

Achievements: Won 1977 PGA Championship

I was first up in the Sunday morning singles against Lanny Wadkins at the 1979 Ryder Cup. John Jacobs, the Europe captain, pulled me to one side beforehand and said that he was putting me in an important position and that he needed me to do well to set the pattern for the day. If I got the numbers on the board, it would hopefully inspire the players behind me.

He said I was up against a good player, but that I had enough in my game to beat him. I don’t know if he really believed that, but it was an inspiring team talk!

Lanny Wadkins had the reputation of being the toughest player out of the American contingent. When I played him at The Greenbrier, he had never lost a foursomes, four-ball or singles match at the Ryder Cup, and that was on my mind.

He was one of these players on the American tour who would play anybody for any money. He was a ferocious competitor who was better in match play than stroke play and none of our team wanted to play him or Larry Nelson. So, to be honest, I wasn’t relishing my match against him!

I got off to a flying start and he never came back. I ran out with a 3 & 2 victory which surprised me, to be honest. I knew it would be tough, but John Jacobs’ pep talk really inspired me – I respected him a lot for that.

Admittedly, Lanny wasn’t at his best that day but I don’t mind that, thanks very much. I was hanging on for pars all the way around and that was that.

Lanny had an American-type game. He was a straight, long hitter with a fast swing and was a very positive player on the greens. It’s a shame that injuries brought a premature end to his career, but he was a great golfer.

We became friends and kept in touch for quite a long time. He helped my son get into Wake Forest University in North Carolina because he was a trustee of the golf team there. I’ll always be grateful to Lanny for that.

2. Tom Watson

Achievements: Won eight majors including five Open titles; World number one from 1978 to 1982

I played Tom Watson in the last of the Sunday singles matches at the 1983 Ryder Cup in Florida.

This was Europe’s first Ryder Cup under Tony Jacklin’s captaincy. We had a losing team up until 1983 – we came close in 1979, but then in 1981 we played arguably the greatest ever USA team and lost heavily.

Tom was one of the stars of that team and was a formidable opponent. When I played against him in Florida, I lost a few holes early on, then I clawed it back and I was one down with two to play.

As the match went on, I felt I was playing better whereas Tom was playing worse. Then I was at the par-3 17th with a 3-iron. I flew the green and went into some thick Bermuda grass.

I thought Tom would pop it in the middle of the green after seeing me do this, but he missed the green right. It was a surprisingly poor shot by his standards. I made the mistake of thinking he would get up and down in two automatically, because he was Tom Watson and he was a great chipper.

I was on a horrendous downslope in the semi-rough and the green was fast from back to front. I chipped it down to four feet and Tom hit a poor chip and then he missed the putt! I’ve got this putt to halve from four feet across the slope and I missed it. Tom Watson won 2 & 1.

The mistake I made was I didn’t play the course, I played the man. I gave him too much respect and tried to play a shot that wasn’t on, instead of just playing it onto the green. If it had been a stroke play competition, I would have just hit on the green and looked to hole a 20-foot putt. I was trying to hit it dead because I thought it was the only chance I’d have.

I wasn’t feeling 100% that week. When I played Tom Watson, I had run out of steam. It was disappointing to go out like that. I wasn’t the same player as I once was – I wasn’t inspired.

But at the same time, I was playing an incredible golfer. Tom Watson had won his eighth major in Southport a few months earlier, so I knew it would be difficult. He was a great seaside player and your archetypal American golfer. He was a long driver and superb putter, so he had the complete package.

He also had a good attitude – he was always confident and focused. I just played him at the wrong time and there’s only one outcome if this happens against Tom Watson.

1. Jack Nicklaus

Achievements: Won 18 majors including six Masters titles; won two major championships in a season on five occasions; widely considered the greatest golfer of all time

Jack is without doubt the toughest opponent I’ve faced. He was in a world of his own.

There were no rivals to Jack when he played. He brought the best out of other players, but nobody got near him. For me, he’s the greatest ever to play the game.

That’s why it felt so special to beat him at the 1977 Ryder Cup. The Americans put Jack Nicklaus in at number six at Royal Lytham thinking he would beat me and they would win the Ryder Cup in this match.

I was nervous the night before when I realised I was playing Jack. I was determined not to lose to him because I played poorly – the last thing I wanted was Jack shooting pars and me shooting bogeys.

Jack’s unique because he makes you feel relaxed, he’s a normal guy on the tee. He shook my hand and said: “Have a good game”, which isn’t something a golfer typically says to their opponent.

I got off to a strong start. Jack missed a three-foot putt on the first green and I went one up. He hit it in the bunker in the second and third and suddenly I was three up and I birdied the fourth so I was four up after four holes.

I’m trying not to get emotional about being four up because I knew he’d come back at me. Sure enough, he started eating away at my lead. A couple of holes later I’m three up, a couple of holes later I’m two up and then at the 16th he holed a long putt and suddenly we’re all square!

I’m thinking “this is typical”. At the 17th, I holed a huge putt from off the green, sunk to my knees and went one up – you can find a clip of it on YouTube. I then managed to hole a four-foot putt on the last green and hung on to win.

I’d have to say this is the highlight of my career. I was quite young when I beat Jack – I was only 28 – so my nerves were strong. I was putting well at the start and that gave me the confidence to go on from there.

Jack was very gracious in defeat. I became friendly with him after that match. In fact, he and his wife have been close with Lesley and I ever since and he still sends us a Christmas card every year. It’s amazing – I think Jack only sends Christmas cards to people who beat him! The cards are always pictures of Jack and his extended family. He’s got a huge family – lots of children and grandchildren.

I’ve been to his house in West Palm Beach in Florida. It’s a beautiful house in a gated community. It’s got its own chipping green and a yacht at the bottom of the garden.

I still bump into him now and again. I had a nice dinner with him at Gleneagles on the Sunday of the 2014 Ryder Cup and he’s a real gentleman.

It’s difficult to pick out my favourite aspects of Jack’s game because there are so many, but he was a great putter under pressure and he was a long, straight driver of the ball. He was the longest hitter in his playing days and he overpowered courses such as Augusta.

On top of this, he was mentally so strong and focused. This was what made him better than everybody else.

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