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Another authentic American hero was born last week out of the gloom and crusty old atmosphere of golf on the linkslands of Britain. In a playoff for the British Open that was so thrilling even the most hardened of souls felt like dancing around the burns and bunkers, young Tom Watson finally became a champion, a new person and one hellacious player. After a lot of slightly baroque things had happened on the becalmed, de-roughed and tranquilized beast of Carnoustie, it all came down to a Sunday match between the 25-year-old Watson, who admits he possibly thinks too much, and an equally young Australian, Jack Newton, who admits he drinks too much. And Watson, as they might say of him across the sea, was cast-iron tough in his cheeky little cap—and just when he had to be.
It was pretty much agreed before the 18-hole playoff began that Watson was the better golfer of the two and certainly would have had fewer schooners of beer the night before. But could he hold together as he had on Saturday in gaining the tie? Holding together was not something Watson had done so well in the past. As for Newton, who is almost as good-looking as his wife, it would be a typical evening. What are you going to do, Jack? "Get drunk again," he said, smiling, chain-smoking, hoisting a mug.
Now off they went under a darkening Scottish sky that would produce more than a drizzle. "My game plan," Watson said, "is to play conservatively for 12 or 13 holes and see if he makes his mistakes. If it's still close, I'll have to get aggressive."
Newton's scrambling and his putting and, for that matter, his tough nature kept it close. Through nine holes they were both even par. Newton birdied the 12th but bogeyed the 13th, and they were still even at the 14th, a short par-5. This hole produced two sensational shots.
First, Newton hit a pitch in the rain that ran up to within a foot of the cup. The pressure was now on Watson, and he responded by pitching dead into the hole for an eagle 3. Newton, who had said, "I'll be using match-play tactics," could only shake his head and light another cigarette.
Watson lost his one-shot lead when he missed the 16th green and bogeyed. And then at the 17th he had to stare at the five-foot putt for a par when Newton was already safely in. But Tom rammed it home as if it were a gimme. That would have been the perfect spot for Watson to do what he had so often done in the past—to miss, and start blowing another one.
Watson, who has always been a solid swinger with tremendous promise, had been waiting all day for Newton—who can come off the ball and hit it almost anywhere—to show signs of falling apart. But it did not happen until the last hole. They were both in the fairway with irons left to the green. Newton hit first and caught it thin, pulling the shot into the left-hand bunker. Watson calmly put his ball right on the green, bringing the club head through, as he does, with so much speed you would hope never to find your ankle in the way of it. Newton's bunker shot was O.K. but not what he needed; he was left with a 10-footer. When Watson putted beautifully up for a tap-in, for a 71, Newton did not have one more putt left in him. He had holed too many to get where he was. This one he missed.
It was not easy to digest the atrocities that were committed on Carnoustie through the first three rounds of this championship. This course had always been considered the toughest of all the British links. Only four previous Opens had been held there and quite a golfer had won each of them: Tommy Armour, Henry Cotton, Ben Hogan and Gary Player. And through all of that, only five rounds had been shot below 70. Of these, Hogan's closing 68 in 1953 had been regarded as one of the game's monumental rounds, for in the cold and winds of that afternoon Carnoustie was said to have played to a par of about 76.
But now came a flood of scores that made Hogan's 68 look routine—in the record books, at least. Peter Oosterhuis equaled the record 68 on Wednesday's opening round, and six other players broke 70. The Scottish dailies shouted it out in wonderment. And then came Thursday and a rush of scores that made the day before a dim memory. Four guys shot 67, including Watson and the peculiar Scottish club pro, David Huish, who would seize the halfway lead by two strokes but only shrug and say that no matter what happened he wasn't going to miss out on "golf week" at North Berwick when he would get to sell a whole lot of clubs and balls. Nor would he consider going on the tour. "I don't see why I should do somethin' I don't want to do," Huish said. "On the tour I'd miss my home cookin'."
No sooner had everyone been given a chance to swallow these 67s than there came the first of Bobby Cole's 66s, and fearsome Carnoustie had a new record in only 24 hours. The South African seemed to be playing beautifully as he removed the ball from the cups and tipped his cap in the manner of Gary Player, who was once his idol.