Going into last week's World Series of Golf at Akron you could get into all sorts of arguments about who should be the PGA Player of the Year—Jack Nicklaus with his two immensely stirring victories in the U.S. Open and the PGA, or Tom Watson with six U.S. tour wins plus the British Open plus all that loot he'd won. The debate went on even after Watson waltzed away with another, ho-hum, $100,000 to become golfs first half-million-dollar-a-year man. To be precise, his official 1980 earnings have now reached $510,258, compared to Nicklaus' trifling $175,786. But there is also a little irony here. Before Sunday's final round, Nicklaus was forced to withdraw from the tournament because of a pain in his back. If there were any justice, it is Watson, with his weighty wallet, who should have had the bad back.
But even if Nicklaus had been able to continue, it's doubtful he could have prevented Watson from winning this latest edition of the World Series, which brought together 32 players from around the world. Jack was six strokes off the lead after 54 holes and had already confessed to friends that he was trying very hard not to be bored, the event not being a major championship.
As for Watson, all he did was shoot rounds of five-under-par 65 on the first, third and fourth days of the championship on the long and rugged south course at the Firestone Country Club. These made the 75 he shot on Friday look like a typographical error.
Those 65s simply did in the elite field. The opening round not only gave Watson the lead, but it also won him the "battle of the glamour pairings," for he was grouped with Nicklaus and Lee Trevino that day. Nicklaus and Trevino did their part to make it a memorable afternoon in golf—Trevino by holing out a nine-iron for an eagle 2 on the 11th hole on the way to a 69 and Nicklaus by chipping in for a birdie on the 9th en route to a 68.
After Friday's play, Watson and Nicklaus were tied at 140, even par, Watson having committed his 75 and Nicklaus a 72. The trouble with this was that it left the tournament momentarily in the hands of Craig (The Walrus) Stadler, who, at 135, held a one-shot lead over Jerry Pate and Ben Crenshaw.
Watson's second 65 left him in a triple tie for the lead with Stadler and Trevino. The next morning, before the start of the final round, Nicklaus was working on the practice tee and suddenly felt a pain in his back, a muscle spasm, and was unable to swing the club. He wasn't a wheelchair case, but for only the second time in his career he had to withdraw from a tournament. Aside from a couple of exhibitions and outings, he doesn't intend to play any more golf this year anyhow, so he wasn't overly concerned—"unless it's a trend," he said.
Watson wasn't given a lift by Nicklaus' abrupt departure. "I just hope he's O.K.," said Tom. Watson was, for sure, with that closing 65, as was the Watson treasury. If you count the $59,250 he collected for the British Open—and only the purest of PGA statisticians don't—Watson now has made close to $570,000 in 1980. He plans to enter two more events this year, and so has an excellent chance to go over the $600,000 mark, a staggering sum.
There may never be a tougher season in which to try to pick a Player of the Year, an award that has been Watson's private property for the past three. And it remains a fairly difficult thing to decide despite Watson's heroics in Akron. In the locker rooms and grills, opinion is still divided. Players who lust for major championships regard Nicklaus' majestic double as unarguably superior to Watson's accomplishments. But just as many competitors are in awe of Watson's seven victories, which include the one major, and his emergence as the sport's first $500,000 man.
The dilemma was exemplified by the attitudes of three of their more illustrious contemporaries. At Firestone, Hale Irwin said, "Golfer of the year? There's no question about it. It's Jack." After which Trevino said, "There's no contest. It's Watson." And Crenshaw said, "When I think about the things both of them have done, it blows my mind."
Watson wins the numbers game any way you want to play it. He and Nicklaus competed together in 10 tournaments in 1980 besides the World Series. In those, Tom finished ahead of Jack in six. Moreover, Watson has been uncannily consistent. He hasn't finished worse than 19th in any tournament, and the record reads that he has been in the top 10 in 16 of the 21 events he entered.