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True enough. With only nine holes to play, Watson was still four strokes ahead of Pate and five up on Mahaffey, and he was revved up from having hit a gorgeous three-wood to within two feet of the pin at the 9th hole and then making the putt for an eagle three. Watson, who had shot earlier rounds of 67, 69 and 67, looked as unbeatable as he had all week.
Two things happened at the 10th, though. Watson drove into a divot and he also had a downhill lie. He hit a poor second shot, the ball going into a bunker. Next came a terrible bunker shot and, finally, three putts for the six. At the same time, Mahaffey was holing a 45-foot birdie putt that, admittedly, he wasn't even trying to make.
"That was a three-shot swing," Mahaffey said. "It got me juiced up, and it had to have some effect on Tom's attitude." Watson agreed. "I started steering the ball," he said.
When Mahaffey sank a 25-footer for a birdie at the 11th, the margin between them was only one shot and it was anyone's championship. A few holes later, however, it looked like anyone's but Watson's. After Mahaffey rammed a nine-iron into the 14th green, very nearly holing it out, and sank a four-footer for a birdie to go nine under, it was obviously Mahaffey's. But when Mahaffey three-putted the 16th for a bogey at about the same time that Pate birdied the 17th, it was obviously Pate's.
Pate was playing one hole ahead of Watson and Mahaffey, and he struck a marvelous bunker shot out of an Oakmont cavern to within two feet of the cup for his birdie three at the short 17th. This put Pate nine-under for the tournament, and with Watson bogeying the 16th along with Mahaffey, the situation was very simple. If they all parred in, Pate would add the PGA to his other major championships, the U.S. Open and Amateur, and Mahaffey would edge Watson for second place by a stroke.
Watson, however, birdied the 17th with a fine shot out of the rough and a six-foot putt, and pulled even with Mahaffey, who parred the hole. None of that would have mattered if Pate had parred the 18th. Pate did everything but par it. He hit a superb drive and a nice six-iron onto the green, the ball ending up some 20 feet below the hole. Even when Pate left his first putt about three feet short, it didn't seem too alarming.
But Pate's putt for the par rimmed the cup and spun out, coming back at him. Of all of the shots made by all concerned, this was the one that caused the three-way playoff.
Happily, no one could say Watson blew the tournament. His final-round 73 was not exactly a blowup score, and he had made two birdies and an eagle while struggling to take his fourth major trophy. "I'm pleased that I hung in there," Watson said. "But there's not much you can do when somebody runs the table. I can't complain about it because that's what I did for three rounds."
After all of the drama and confusion, that's really what it came down to. Well, you knew something crazy had to happen on Sunday. Wasn't this Oakmont, which practically invented golf history in this country? Oakmont has held more major championships than any other club, and it has seen all of the greats and near-greats walk among its immense bunkers and rambling ditches and over its marble-top greens. Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen, Tommy Armour, Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller had won at Oakmont—either a U.S. Amateur, a U.S. Open or a PGA—and the course had even provided the most unusual winner in golf, Sam Parks Jr., a name known only to Sam Parks Sr. when he staggered through the furrowed bunkers and over the lightning putting surfaces in 1935 to take the Open.