Shot No. 2,889
Tom Watson came to Pebble Beach in 1982 having played in 10 U.S. Opens without a victory. On a cool, gray Sunday afternoon, that changed
The shot took only a couple of seconds, but it had been years in the making.
Tom Watson had literally been schooled in the U.S. Open. His father, Raymond, a handy golfer himself, knew the championship chapter and verse. He could name its winners, the year they won and how they won, going back to 1895. "The Open became the pinnacle for me as well," Tom says, "very simply because it was the toughest tournament to win."
But by 1982, Ray Watson's encyclopedic roll call did not yet include the name he most wanted to recite. Not that his son hadn't had his chances. Tom challenged futilely at Winged Foot and Medinah, Cherry Hills and Baltusrol, all the while stockpiling claret jugs, green jackets and assorted PGA Tour titles that made him the best player of his generation. To get what he wanted most, however, Watson would have to beat the best player of all time.
He had done it before, of course, outdueling Nicklaus at Turnberry and outlasting him at Augusta National in 1977. But in a U.S. Open? At Pebble Beach? "The Open is more important than any other tournament," Watson said then. "To be a complete golfer, you have to win the Open." In 1982 Nicklaus wanted a fifth Open; Watson needed his first.
As he stood on the 17th tee, emerald grass under foot and a gray sea in the distance, it was approaching 5 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Sunday, June 20, 1982. Watson was tied for the U.S. Open lead with Nicklaus, who was three groups ahead. After a frenetic charge earlier in the day that brought him toward the top of the leader board, Nicklaus had finished uncharacteristically, missing birdie putts on Nos. 16, 17 and 18. Despite leaving the door ajar, Nicklaus was confident. "Even though I missed those putts, I still thought I was going to win the tournament," Nicklaus says nearly three decades later.
Playing with Watson in the final group, Bill Rogers, the slightly built 1981 British Open champion, had the honor at 17. With its history of tripping up golfers -- although Nicklaus' glorious 1-iron off the flagstick wrapped up the 1972 U.S. Open for him, his final-round bogey there kept him out of a playoff for the 1977 PGA Championship -- it was no surprise the par 3 was playing as the hardest hole in the final round. It measured 209 yards, only a few paces from its longest yardage, with the hole tucked as far back and left as possible.
"It was a very hard hole, just as it had been in 1972," says Frank Hannigan, then senior executive director of the USGA, who was supplying rules commentary for ABC that week and positioned at the 17th hole on Sunday. "It was a long iron into a small target, and it was chilly."
After watching Rogers hit a fairway wood, Watson studied the shot with his longtime caddie, Bruce Edwards, who wanted this one as badly as his boss -- he hadn't been on the bag for Watson's five previous major conquests because Watson hired Alfie Fyles at the British Open and a local caddie, per club rules, at the Masters. Edwards knew better than anyone the uphill U.S. Open road Watson had traversed, and as recently as two days earlier, it looked as though this would be another lost weekend. Watson's second-round even-par 72 easily could have been 10 strokes higher; he hit only five fairways, and that's usually a felony in a U.S. Open.
"I was hitting it awful," Watson remembers. "I gave myself no chance to win the tournament at the beginning of the week. I was hitting it so far sideways that I was in the galleries where they walked the grass down, so I wasn't stuck."
During a long practice session following the second round, Watson hit on something. He thought his wild driving was due to the separation between his arms and upper body on his backswing. If he could keep his arms more in sync with his body, he might restore his accuracy. After drilling a few drivers, he said quietly to Edwards, "I've got it."
On the 71st hole, in the damp air with a fresh breeze off Carmel Bay, Watson and Edwards debated between a 2- and a 3-iron, Edwards lobbying for the latter because he thought the harder Watson swung the better he played. Watson, though, was concerned about carrying the large left-front bunker. The downside of the 2-iron was that, fueled by a bit of major-championship adrenaline, it potentially could leave him long, left and in big trouble.
Watson opted for the 2-iron, aiming at the point where the left and right portions of the small, hourglass-shaped green meet. He made his brisk, upright swing. He hit it very well, but "hooked it too much." As the ball took flight, he quickly barked "Down!" Watson and Edwards watched helplessly as the Golden Ram No. 1 drifted left and scooted through the green into deep, wiry fescue. If his lie was as poor as could be expected, Watson's dream of a U.S. Open title would be dashed. As player and caddie headed for the green, Watson mumbled grimly to Edwards, "That's dead."
Hannigan recalls holding out hope, however slim, for Watson's chances. "Remember," he says, "Watson was what Seve was around the greens and what Tiger is now. So, I thought he had a 50-50 chance of making 3."
As Watson sized up his 16-foot chip, many others were less optimistic about his predicament. A few minutes after Watson missed the 17th green, Terry Jastrow, who was directing the telecast for ABC, dispatched Jack Whitaker to interview Nicklaus in the scoring tent near the 18th green. Also in the tent: a young USGA staffer named David Fay, who was calmly watching the tableau unfold before him both live and on a television monitor. Fay had completed his task of introducing the contestants on the first tee and spent the afternoon at No. 18.