Nicklaus aims for US Open No. 5, but rivalry is sharp

From Bobby Jones's Grand Slam to Ben Hogan's memorable 1950 comeback and the latter-day heroics of Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, the storied East Course at Merion has provided the setting for some of the most famous moments in all golfing history.

Now as the US Open returns for the fourth time to this small but deceptively tough layout in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, the state is set for still another dramatic chapter. Nicklaus, as usual, is the main focus of attention, with Trevino and Tom Watson not far behind, and with at least a dozen others posing solid threats to capture what most observers now consider the game's most prestigious championship.

For Nicklaus it's a chance to add to both his own and Merion's store of history by becoming the first man ever to win the Open five times. In the process he would increase his record collection of major championships to 20 (this includes his two US amateur crowns), and would become the first man in 30 years to successfully defend the national title.

Jack's previous victories in the Open came in 1962 (his firt year as a pro), 1967, 1972, and of course last year at Baltusrol, when his stirring victory ended a personal drought of nearly two years and effectively silenced those who had been whispering that at 40 years of age he was no longer up to winning a big tournament. That fourth triumph also tied him with Jones, Hogan, and Willie Anderson for most Open victories -- a deadlock he hopes to put an end to this year.

But if anyone can possibly want this one more than Nicklaus, it is Watson. While Jack is firmly entrenched as the best player of our era and generally considered the greatest of all time, Tom has easily stood out as the game's dominant figure over the past four years. He has been both the PGA Player of the Year and the top money winner on the tour in each of these four seasons, and at age 31 he has already won the Masters twice and the British Open three times. But he is still looking for his first victory in this event -- and already people are beginning to compare his frustrations in the Open to those of Sam Snead, the only other truly great player who never won it.

"I want a US Open victory very badly," Watson said as he prepared for the four-day, 72-hole test which begins today and continues through Sunday over this picturesque course, which measures only a bit more than 6,500 yards but usually plays a lot harder than it looks.

"Winning this tournament is now my major goal in golf and it will continue to be until I do it," he added. "My career won't be complete until I win the US Open."

As the current Masters Champion, Watson is also the only player who has a chance this year for the modern version of the Grand Slam (Masters, US and British Opens, and PGA) -- a feat which no one has ever yet accomplished in a single year. But that's a long shot in any case, and the real motivation here is simply to finally get this big prize that has always eluded him.

Then there is Trevino -- for if ever one player's game seemed perfectly suited to a particular course, it is Lee's to Merion. This is a "thinking man's course," placing a premium on all of the things at which he excels (accuracy off the tee, a good short game, pressure putting, and intelligent strategic planning), while demanding much less in the one area where he is not so strong -- long hitting.

All this was very much in evidence 10 years ago when the self-styled "Merry Mex" climaxed the biggest year of his career by defeating Nicklaus in a memorable playoff to win the 1971 Open title.And except for a bit of a question about some back problems which have been bothering him lately, there's no reason to think he has any less of a chance this time around.

Nicklaus is also good at the things it takes to win at Merion -- especially the mental aspect which often dictates sacrificing distance for accuracy on the narrow fairways. In a typical round over this same course in 1971, for instance , Jack teed off with his driver on the par-four holes only three times, using his 3-wood six times, his 1-iron twice, and his 2- iron once. And even a decade earlier, back near the very beginning of his career, a young Nicklaus showed his affinity for Merion by virtually tearing the course apart with rounds of 66, 67, 68, 68 in the 1960 World Amateur Team Championships.

Watson, on the other hand, is quite a bit wilder off the tee than either Nicklaus or Trevino -- a deficiency which has to be weighed more heavily against his chances here than it might be elsewhere. But the fact that Tom is the best player in the world right now week in and week out has to count for something -- and of course he too is an intelligent enough golfer to know that he must play a game of finesse rather than power if he hopes to win here.

Former champions like Jerry Pate, twotime winner Hale Irwin, and comeback- minded Johnny Miller also must be reckoned with, along with such ever-dangerous and/or currently hot performers as Ben Crenshaw, Ray Floyd, and Bruce Lietzke. And then there is the foreign contingent.

No golfer from another country has won the Open in a decade, but they've certainly been knocking at the door for the past two years. So it may be worth keeping an eye on this year's group, headed by Gary Player of South Africa, Isao Aoki of Japan, and Severiano Ballesteros of Spain.

Player is a former champion (1965) whose game seems well suited to this coruse. He hasn't done much lately, but like Nicklaus he has reached a stage where he only really turns it on in the major championships -- as he demonstrated by winning his third Masters in 1978 and by tying for second in the 1979 US Open.

Aoki also has a game which fits Merion, and although most of his victories in a long and distinguished career have come in Asia, he certainly can't be counted out after the way he matched Nicklaus shot for shot at Baltusrol last year, finishing second by only two strokes to Jack's record 272 score.

Ballesteros, on the other hand, has the sort of game which would seem to work better almost anywhere else. The Spaniard spends much of his time scrambling through the rough or even the parking lots (one wag said of his Masters victory last year that he "saw more of Georgia in four days than General Sherman in his march to the sea"). But despite such erratic play, he did win that tournament as well as the 1979 British Open, so he can't be disregarded altogether.

At any rate, it will be interesting to see how he and other long, wild hitters play this course. If they keep the driver in the bag most of the time, they may have a chance. But if they play their normal games and try to overpower Merion, they will probably all be in for a long weekend.

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