Watson emerges from gripping duel with Nicklaus to win first US Open
If you wanted to write a perfect script for the US Open, you couldn't do much better than the one that was played out for real last weekend at Pebble Beach, Calif.Skip to next paragraph
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First you stage the tournament at one of the planet's most scenic and magnificent golf courses, overlooking the Pacific Ocean at the spot which Robert Louis Stevenson once called ''the greatest meeting of land and water in the world.'' You spice up the early rounds with the usual assortment of unlikely veterans and unknown youngsters battling for the lead. Then you finish up with the most dramatic duel imaginable - the one everybody wanted to see: Tom Watson vs. Jack Nicklaus.
And of course you let it all come down to the last two holes, with Nicklaus grimly watching his chance for a record-breaking fifth Open championship slip away as his arch rival pitches in a spectacular birdie from the rough on the 17 th hole and goes on to win the one big prize that has always eluded him.
That's enough theatrics for a dozen Opens, and indeed, Watson's shot on the 17th is bound to go down in sports lore as one of those never-to-be-forgotten moments when a great athlete rose to the occasion at just the right moment.
Watson was leading the tournament going into the 16th hole, but an errant tee shot led to a bogey that pushed him back into a tie with Nicklaus. Was it to be another lost opportunity for the man who has been the game's dominant player over the last half dozen or so years but had never been able to win this most prestigious of all tournaments?
All it took was one unsettling bogey like that, of course, to bring back to mind all his other failures in this tournament - especially 1975 at Medinah, Ill., where he had the lead until a third round 78 ruined his bid, and 1976 at Atlanta, when he again had chances to win before falling out of contention. Could it be that, like Sam Snead in another era, Watson was going to be the great golfer of his time but somehow never able to win the one championship he wanted most of all?
It began to look that way when Tom's tee shot on the par-3 17th hole landed in heavy rough to the right of the green about 16 feet from the pin. Nicklaus certainly thought so. Standing by the scoring tent after having finished his round, and watching the action on a TV monitor, Jack was already anticipating an 18-hole playoff the next day and his shot at becoming the only man to win the title five times.
''I thought to myself, 'There's no way in the world he can get it up and down from there,' '' Nicklaus told reporters afterwards. ''I still don't see how he got the ball into the hole.''
Watson's caddie, Bruce Edwards, thought the same way. He advised his man to pitch the ball close and settle for a par, rather than go for the hole and risk running past and leaving himself a long putt coming back. But Tom had other ideas as he took a sand wedge and assessed the situation.
''I had a good lie, though on a down slope,'' said Watson, whose familiarity with Pebble Beach goes back to his days as a student at Stanford University when he used to drive the 90 miles or so from Palo Alto, stay over with friends, then sneak onto the course for early morning rounds.