From where Tom Watson was on the 71st hole of the U.S. Open golf championship Sunday at Pebble Beach—in the garbage, on a downslope, looking at a slick green—you don't simply chip the ball into the cup for a birdie to beat Jack Nicklaus, who is already in the scorer's tent with a total good enough to win. First, you throw up.
Well, that's wrong, of course. If you're Watson, by now you're accustomed to beating Nicklaus in major tournaments because you've done it before at the Masters and in the British Open, so you lay open the blade of a sand wedge and plop the lob-chip shot softly onto the putting surface and then watch the flagstick get in the way of the ball to keep it from running all the way to the Lodge.
Of the many dramatic and championship-twisting shots that were struck and misstruck all last week on the Monterey Peninsula, and in all of the 81 Opens that came before this one, Watson's chip-in at the 17th on Sunday will be remembered for as long as men sew leather patches on the elbows of their tweed jackets.
Two quotes must be pressed into the family Bible along with the 16-foot hole-out that gave Watson his first Open title and his sixth major. Watson's regular caddie, Bruce Edwards, said to him before the shot, "Get it close." Replied Watson, "I'm not gonna get it close, I'm gonna make it!"
This was why Watson could be seen pointing at someone (Edwards) as he went into that sprint and dance around the edge of the green after the ball darted into the cup. If he had been a little more delirious and a little less careful, he might have discoed right into Carmel Bay.
Which brings up quote No. 2. Nicklaus was watching Watson's progress on a TV monitor in back of the 18th green. He had shot a fourth-round 69, three under par, and had a total of 284, four under for the 72 holes—six strokes better than the 290 with which he had won the Open at Pebble Beach back in '72. He had seen Watson's less-than-perfect two-iron from the 17th tee bounce and find the high grass on the upslope to the left of the green.
Certain bogey, Jack thought; I win. After the weirdness of most of Thursday, Friday, Saturday and all of Sunday, the two were dead-even tied. Nicklaus took his eyes off the monitor for just a second, and the next thing he saw on it was Watson looking like a man with an incurable itch, and a mighty roar was filling the air. A few minutes later, Watson was making a needless birdie at 18 to win by two strokes, and Nicklaus was shaking Tom's hand on the green, saying with a smile, "You little son of a bitch, you're something else."
So ended one of the more fantastic U.S. Opens, or majors, of recent years. In the end, it was another Watson-Nicklaus saga. Watson-Nicklaus III, check your local neighborhood theater. No. I came at Augusta in 1977, when Tom outbattled Jack in the stretch to win the first of his two Masters titles—with a birdie at the 17th, incidentally. No. II came later that summer at Turnberry in Scotland when Watson captured the second of his three British Open trophies in a furious head-to-head duel, 65-65 in the third round, then 65-66 in the last round, the decisive birdie again coming at the 17th hole. Now this at Pebble Beach, and on Pebble's picturesque 17th.
Watson's chip-in must rank in history with two similar shots that have more or less decided major championships, although Watson's no doubt is the most stunning of the three. There is the wedge Arnold Palmer holed out from beside the 16th green at the 1962 Masters, a stroke that enabled him to gain a playoff with Gary Player and Dow Finsterwald, which he won. Then there was the chip shot Lee Trevino sank on the next-to-last hole at Muirfield in the 1972 British Open, and Nicklaus, who was shooting for the third leg of a Grand Slam, also was the victim there—on the 17th, of course.
"Yes, it has happened to me before, but I didn't think it would happen again," Nicklaus said after finishing second in the Open for the fourth time, in a major for the 18th, a remarkable feat all by itself, the more so when you reflect on the 19 majors he has won. "I rate Tom's [shot] up there with Trevino's," he added. "I suppose I've done it to other people, too. Maybe not by chipping in. When you think you've won, it's disappointing."