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A 60-foot putt that seemed to take an hour or so to work its way through the Allegheny hills before making a slight right-hand turn into the Oakmont Country Club and then into the cup for a birdie on the 16th green served to bring an end to the U.S. Open Championship, and not a minute too soon. Quiet Larry Nelson sank the putt last Monday morning about the time that the rest of Pennsylvania was having a second cup of coffee, and he sank Tom Watson with it. Who knows when the thing might have ended otherwise, what with all the storm delays that had preceded the big putt, and what with everyone playing so cautiously through the slender corridors of the tricked-up course?
So Nelson, 35, a tough operator, is the 1983 Open champion; he's a Vietnam vet from Georgia who has always hit the ball straight and played smart, who won the PGA Championship in 1981 and who must dearly love competition when it's him and you—Watson in this case. In international Ryder Cup match play, Nelson has a 9-0 record.
Though they weren't paired when the last six players went out to challenge the course on Monday morning after final-round play had been postponed by Oakmont's second storm, on Sunday, it was Nelson against Watson. They were tied for the lead at four under par for the tournament. Watson had 4½ holes to play, Nelson had three.
Overnight, they'd had to sleep on the difficulties they would face. Watson would confront a 35-foot birdie putt on the 14th green. The pin was downhill, and the green was slick. Before he'd gone to bed, Linda, his wife, had said, "Tom, how long is that putt?" And Tom had said, "It's too long and very hard."
Watson two-putted for his par 4, but ahead, in the next group, Nelson had found the green of the 228-yard par-3 16th with his four-wood, and now he was rapping the 60-foot birdie putt that any sane man could only hope to get down in two. He thought at first he had tapped it too weakly, and he looked momentarily forlorn. But the ball kept rolling.
Then, when Nelson saw the putt picking up speed as it traveled downhill he picked up speed on foot. As the ball began to zero in on the cup, Nelson added more speed, and he was almost in a dead run when the ball disappeared into the hole. The stroke put him five under and one ahead of Watson, who for most of Sunday had looked like a man headed for his second straight Open victory and his eighth major title.
Nelson routinely parred the 17th and put a beautiful three-wood layup drive into the fairway on 18, while Watson just as routinely parred the 15th and 16th holes. Timing then became important. Watson studied a 130-yard shot to the 17th, badly needing a birdie, while Nelson punched a four-wood onto the lower level of the 18th green. Nelson now had an enormous distance to go on that green, and it's never easy to two-putt to win an Open, but Watson didn't know about the putt Nelson faced. He boldly went for the pin on 17 and caught a rightside bunker. Had he known how far Nelson was from the pin on 18, he would have hit to the fat part of the green.
Nelson did three-putt, missing a 10-footer for par, but Watson, who knew of Nelson's bogey, blew a six-footer for par at the 17th after a nifty bunker shot.
Nelson would then win the Open standing by the scorer's tent beside the 18th green as Watson flew a six-iron too strongly over the green. He chipped bravely—the ball almost struck the pin, but it didn't go in, and Nelson in that instant became the champion, finishing with rounds of 65-67, a record by four shots for the last 36 holes of an Open, and a winning total of four-under-par 280.
Nelson doesn't spray a course with one-liners, so he left everyone with some less than immortal words after Watson's chip flew past the pin. What was your reaction, Larry?