Home > Family, Golf, Sports > Watson at Turnberry, 2

Watson at Turnberry, 2

Jack congratulates Tom, 1982 US Open

Jack congratulates Tom, 1982 US Open

I wrote about Tom Watson last night for fear that if I waited, he would no longer be leading the Open Championship at Turnberry. Tonight, after round three, he still leads. In fact, he’s sole leader. After the first round, he was a stroke back. After the second, he was tied for the lead. Now he stands alone. I said last night that this won’t last much longer. Now I don’t know what to say. I sure hope it lasts. But golf was created to dash hopes, so I am trying not to be too attached to the idea that two months shy of his 60th birthday, Tom might actually win his sixth Open, his first Open (and major) victory since 1983.

Wouldn’t it be great?

Tom was far and away my favorite golfer — my favorite athlete — for at least a decade. I never enjoyed anyone’s golfing victory as much as his US Open win at Pebble Beach in 1982. And no golfing loss crushed me more than his narrow loss at the US Open a year later at Oakmont.

Watson burst onto the major tournament pages in 1974 as a promising 24-year-old, when he led the US Open at Winged Foot after three rounds. It was a fiercely difficult course. His three-round lead was at 3 over par. He shot a 9 over par 79 on the final day, opening the door for Hale Irwin to win the first of his three US Opens with a 3 over par 73 for an overall score of 7 over par. Watson tied for fifth, along with Arnold Palmer and Jim Colbert. A stroke behind him were Gary Player and Tom Kite; two strokes behind was Jack Nicklaus.

A year later, Watson won the Open Championship at Carnoustie, his first major. By 1981, he had won two more Opens and two Masters, but no US Open. The pain of his 1975 loss surely continued to haunt him. And then came the miracle of 1982. Nicklaus was in the clubhouse after his final round with a 3 under par round of 69 to finish at the tournament at 4 under par. He was poised to win his 5th US Open. Watson was also at 4 under when he came to the Pebble Beach’s treacherous par 3 17th hole. His drive went left into high rough, not far from where the flag was placed for that round. Nicklaus thought victory was his. As Nicklaus knew, and as the announcers explained to those of us watching on TV (I was watching in Seattle, after my first year living here), any swing strong enough to get the ball out of the rough would send it way past the hole, possibly off the green setting up a bogey at best and possibly a double bogey. The alternative would be a swing that didn’t get the ball out of the rough at all.

Watson had other ideas. His caddie, Bruce Edwards, told him to get it close. Watson replied, “Get it close? Hell, I’m going to make it.” And that’s exactly what he did, for a stunning birdie 2 that put him in the lead by a stroke. He ran around in celebration, birdied 18 as well for good measure, and beat Nicklaus by two strokes. He had won a US Open at last. Nicklaus was devastated.

Watson won his fourth Open Championship a month later, at Troon, and came to Oakmont for the 1983 US Open as the unchallenged best player in the world. I will never forget that US Open. Watson led Larry Nelson by a stroke going into the fourth round. Bad weather forced fourth round play on Sunday to be suspended with the leaders still on the course. Nelson had been making unbelievable putts hole after hole. If I remember correctly, he had taken a one stroke lead over Watson when play was stopped.

I couldn’t wait to see the rest of the round on Monday. The only problem was, I was supposed to meet someone for lunch that day. That someone was Gail. You could sorta say it was going to be our first date. But Monday morning she called to tell me she had to make an emergency visit to the dentist, so we agreed to meet Tuesday for dinner. That freed me up to see the rest of the golf. I went to my office, then wandered over to the big TV in the student center to watch the conclusion. I was confident that Tom would find a way to win. Alas, he didn’t. Nelson beat him by a stroke, shooting a final round of 4 under par 67 to Tom’s 69.

And the next day, Gail and I had dinner. But that’s another story.

Watson won the Open yet again, his fifth, a month later at Royal Birkdale. But that would be his final major championship. Or so we thought. Now we await tomorrow’s outcome. He came close again, never more so than four years later at the 1987 US Open at Olympic. Once more, he had the third round lead, this time by a stroke over Scott Simpson. And on a final day eerily like the one in 1983, an astonishing putting display took the championship away from him. Simpson shot a two under par 68 on Sunday to Watson’s par round of 70. Simpson’s cumulative result was 3 under par. Watson was at 2 under, and the closest competitor to them was Seve Ballesteros at 2 over. Unlike Larry Nelson, who had already won a major when he snatched victory from Watson (the PGA, which he won in 1981 and would win again in 1987), Simpson never won another major. With just a little bit of luck, Watson would have added those two US Opens to his major championship record. But, luck cuts both ways, and he sure got lucky in 1982 to beat Jack.

I watched the 1987 disappointment at Gail’s brother’s apartment, celebrating Father’s Day with their father, them, and Jessica. And Joel, sort of. He would be born five days later. They didn’t share my sense of urgency, my appreciation of the moment. They thought it was okay to carry on a conversation while I was watching intently, waiting for Watson to will his way to victory.

Gail hadn’t yet become the golf fan she is now. She was learning. Joel too. I doubt she would have believed that 15 years later the three of us would spend six days walking Bethpage Black on Long Island, spectating at the 2002 US Open.

If Tom is in the hunt tomorrow on the closing holes, I won’t be able to bear the tension. It’s going to be a special day, no matter what.

Categories: Family, Golf, Sports
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