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.

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.

''I practice those shots for hours and hours,'' he added in his post-tournament remarks to the press and to a national television audience. ''I told my caddie, ''I'm not going to get it close; I'm going to put it in.' As soon as the ball hit the green, I knew it was in.''

The normally unassuming Watson's reaction was almost as spectacular as his shot, as he leaped high into the air and sort of half-danced, half-ran around the green. Then it was business as usual on the par-5 18th, and he made no mistakes. Needing only a par to win, he hit three routine shots to the green, 20 feet from the hole. Now the standard two putts would do it, but he ended the suspense right away by sinking the first one to end up winning by two strokes with a 6-under par final tally of 72-72-68-70--282.

Next came emotional embraces with his caddie and with his wife, Linda, who is expecting their second child, then congratulations by a disappointed but sportsmanlike-as-always Nicklaus. Jack is without question the greatest golfer of this era if not of all time, with 19 major championships to his credit, but some of his toughest losses have come at the hands of Watson - first in those well-remembered head-to-head duels in both the Masters and the British Open in 1977, and now in this newly famous battle.

Furthermore, at age 42 Nicklaus knows that time is running out on his hopes of crowning his career with the victory that would break the tie he is now in with Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, and Ben Hogan and make him the only five-time Open champion. And he could hardly hope for a better shot anywhere else than this course where he has played so well over the years, winning the only other Open held here in 1972, one of his US Amateur titles, and three Bing Crosby Tournaments.

Nicklaus and Watson were both at even par 144, five strokes off the pace, at the halfway point of the 72-hole tournament. The unlikely leader at that stage was Australian veteran Bruce Devlin, who has been largely inactive for the last several years; next in line was little-known Larry Rinker; and also high up on the leader board were such less-than-household names as Scott Simpson and Lyn Lott.

For some reason this sort of thing happens regularly in the early rounds of the Open, though, and by the end of the third round things were looking a lot more logical with Watson and British Open champion Bill Rogers tied for the lead at 212. Nicklaus was three strokes behind at that point, but he staged a typical charge on the final day, running off five straight birdies from the third through the seventh holes to make a battle of it. Jack faltered with bogeys on the eighth and 11th, but birdied the 15th to go four under par and held it there the rest of the way for a final score of 74-70-71-69--284.

All he could do after that, though, was wait and watch helplessly as Watson ended Jack's dreams and his own long years of frustration with that one dramatic swing of the club at 17.

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