Of those who chased him, Watson must have least dreaded seeing Simpson in his rearview mirror, especially with Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Ben Crenshaw, Mize, John Mahaffey (all three back), Curtis Strange (four) and Greg Norman (seven) menacing. Even rookie Keith Clearasil, er, Clearwater, the fresh-faced pro from BYU, seemed to own more destiny than Simpson. Clearwater admitted the only things that got him to the Open at all were his wife's feet. It seems that after he won the Colonial in Fort Worth six weeks ago, he stayed out celebrating until 2:30 a.m. Qualifying for the Open meant getting up at 5 a.m. There'll be a U.S. Open next year, he said to himself. "Then I felt these big feet on my back pushing me out of bed. My wife was saying, 'You'll be watching the Open on TV and wishing you were there.' " So he not only qualified but went out Saturday and tied Rives McBee's course record of 64. Then he tripped over his own feet Sunday with a 79.
Anyway, one by one, all of them faded...except Simpson. Ballesteros, who came within one shot of the lead, couldn't keep his ball in the short grass and finally flattened under the weight of his own driver. "Someday," said Ballesteros, "they'll play without fairways. Just rough and green. Then I'm sure I will have a very good chance."
And suddenly, Watson and Simpson—history maker and history breaker—were all alone. Then again, maybe Simpson would have faded too, if the poltergeist of Fleck and Casper hadn't intervened on the 11th. It was there that Simpson sailed a bunker shot much too hard and high and, quite probably, off the edge of the green. Only the ball smacked the flag, cuddled down six feet from the hole and begged to be coaxed in for par, when surely bogey or worse had been growling. ("Well," said Watson afterward. "That's the game. I chipped in five years ago.")
Playing in the twosome ahead of Watson, Simpson jabbed first, birdieing the 14th from six feet to tie Watson for the lead at one under par, and then the 15th from 30 feet to take the lead by himself. "I pulled that putt on 15 a little bit," said Simpson, "but then the thing broke right and went dead in the hole. It was lucky." The Ghosts of Olympic be with you.
Simpson led for only a matter of seconds, as Watson, playing behind him in the final twosome, answered with a birdie at 14 to tie it again. Then Simpson holed a 15-foot birdie putt on 16—his third straight piece of putting artistry—to go one up. It was here that Simpson took his first peek at the leader board all day. "I decided not to look at the board until then because last time I did it I think it hurt me more than helped me," he said. Simpson wanted to stay with his style—plodding along, making good pars, "hitting for the middle of the green a lot of times," taking precious few chances. "When I looked, I expected to see myself ahead," Simpson said. Imagine his surprise to see a 37-year-old, washed-up ex-legend loitering one shot in arrears.
Now, admitting to the sticky breath of a six-time PGA Player of the Year on his neck, Simpson promptly hit his approach shot to 17 into a bunker. But this was where Simpson did something unexpected. He drew from history. "I thought about Fleck and Casper," he said. "The one thing I knew I had going for me was that I knew the veterans had lost two times before here. If Jack Fleck could come from behind and win, then I could do it, too."
And so Simpson blasted out to seven feet and, with Watson waiting in the fairway, made the putt. "The best putting day of my life," he said.
And now lay one last hole. From the 8th hole on, Simpson and Watson had both played Olympic in three under par. They were the only players under par for the week.
Somehow, Simpson made a routine two-iron, eight-iron, two-putt par on the short 18th—and stepped aside to watch Watson. On came Watson's pitching wedge from 105 yards, dead uphill, dead on-line...but too short. "I probably should've hit a nine-iron," Watson said. Then the 45-foot putt. Dead on-line. But three inches too short.
Watson wasn't sure whether he should collapse from success or failure. He had missed a few birdie chances—eight feet at the 7th, 10 feet at the 10th and 15 feet at the 16th—but he had persevered. "I have nothing to be ashamed about," he said. "I am disappointed, but it feels good to be in the hunt. I can feel a little of the old magic coming back. I mean, the old magic is right there."