Watson's lead after three rounds was a good omen, as was the fact that other than Ernie Els, who trailed by one shot, and John Huston and Paul Stankowski, who were two back, no one was closer than five strokes. Moreover, the rainy conditions forecast for the final day were up Watson's alley; the dampness would slow Muirfield's greens to something approaching a comfort level.
Nevertheless, on the 1st hole on Sunday, Watson lost his outright lead doing precisely what he had been doing for the last nine years: He missed a two-footer. He missed it so badly that the ball didn't even touch the hole. Watson suddenly had to regain his composure. Els, the '94 U.S. Open champion, was now tied with him for the lead.
Watson steadied himself and settled into a shoot-out with three gunslingers: Els, long overdue after more than 12 months without a Tour victory; Huston, who shattered Muirfield's course record with an 11-under-par 61 on Friday; and Mark O'Meara, the hottest player on the Tour, who had finished first, second (twice) and third in his four previous starts.
Watson focused on his putting. He recalled an image of Crenshaw's rhythmic stroke and, locking onto it, holed a confidence-building four-footer for par on the 3rd hole. "I was confident," said Bruce Edwards, Watson's caddie for 20 of the last 23 years. "I knew he had found something in his putting stroke. I know him so well. I just had a really good feeling about this."
By the time Watson built a three-stroke lead with a 20-foot birdie putt on the 13th hole, it seemed that only a sudden case of putting spasms could undo him. Enter Duval, a 24-year-old Tour sophomore, who on the heels of a third-round 65 was on his way to a closing 67. Seven under par and seven strokes back after 13 on Sunday, Duval, playing two groups ahead of Watson, toured the last five holes in five under par.
Knowing that Duval's eagle on the 15th and birdie on the 16th had cut his lead to three, Watson stepped to the tee at the 490-yard par-5 15th. The 15th ranked as the easiest hole at Muirfield for the week, but Watson hardly made it look that way on Sunday. He pushed his tee shot into the trees and had to punch back into the fairway. His third shot came to rest some 30 feet from the hole, and from there he three-putted, badly pulling a five-footer for par.
Watson dug in. On the par-3 16th, he staked a five-iron straight over the pin to within 20 feet and two-putted for par. He pulled his drive on the par-4 17th into a fairway bunker but skinned a precise eight-iron that nearly hit the flagstick before stopping on the fringe 15 feet behind the hole. Watson looked shaky sinking his two-footer for par, however, and as he walked to the last tee, he learned that Duval had birdied 18 to cut his lead to one.
On the final hole, a 437-yard par-4 dogleg right, Watson hit a bold drive that flirted with the bunker down the right side. He then nailed a six-iron, leaving the ball 12 feet above the pin. He was left with a lightning-fast downhill putt.
Here, finally, the guiding hand that Watson has never asked for during his long drought intervened. On a putt that Watson was trying to leave short, the ball steamed down the slope and into the hole, saving him from any chance of missing the comebacker—a miss that might have broken even his back.
The scene seemed like a flashback to Watson's victory at the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. After Watson looked heavenward and threw his hat as far as he could, he walked to the edge of the green and embraced the runner-up in that championship, and the host at Muirfield, Jack Nicklaus.