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Nicklaus, Watson rivalry cemented by friendship, respect

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On the second day of the 1991 Masters, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus were paired in the final group. By the end of a long, rainy afternoon, Watson was on his way to a second straight 68 and the lead in the tournament. Nicklaus was en route to shooting 72.

Even in the gloaming, with the rain coming down steadily, the 18th green was ringed by spectators as the two men made their way up the final fairway. As always, Watson walked briskly while Nicklaus moved at a slower pace. There’s a spot at the top of the hill where applause for the players always begins. Those who have played at Augusta National often enough know exactly where that spot is and almost always take off their caps to acknowledge the applause just as it begins to build.

A few steps short of that spot, Watson stopped. He waited until Nicklaus, a quizzical look on his face, chugged up beside him.

“What are you doing?” Nicklaus asked.

“Waiting for you,” Watson said. “You walk up on the green first.”

Nicklaus shook his head. “Oh no,” he said. “You go first, you’re leading the golf tournament.”

 “Doesn’t matter,” Watson said firmly. “You’re going first. YOU’RE Jack Nicklaus.”

Finally, they put their arms around one another and compromised: They walked onto the green together.

Which was exactly as it should have been. The argument can be made that, among all the great rivalries in sports, there never has been one where those involved respected one another more than Watson and Nicklaus.

More often than not, rivals – teams or individuals – don’t truly understand how important their most feared opponent was until after they’re no longer competing against one another.

Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer privately sniped at one another for years until they became friends as they approached their golfing dotage. John McEnroe always wanted to be more like Bjorn Borg and Borg always wanted to be more like McEnroe but the two men remained baffled by one another long after each had retired. To this day fans of Duke and North Carolina fail to understand how much each means to the other.

Watson and Nicklaus got it almost from the beginning. Sure, there was the moment at the 1977 Masters when Watson thought Nicklaus was pointing back at him after making a birdie putt on Sunday to take the lead, but that was a moment in the cauldron of a major championship that passed quickly.

Watson always knew he wanted to emulate Nicklaus, not just as a player, but as a champion. No one ever competed harder than Nicklaus, no one ever wanted to win more than Nicklaus. No one ever BELIEVED he was going to win more than Nicklaus. Watson became all those things. Some of it was just who he was but some of it was also watching Nicklaus from up close in victory and defeat.

As dramatic as Watson’s 1977 victory over Nicklaus at Turnberry was, no win meant more to him than his U.S. Open victory in 1982 at Pebble Beach. His chip-in on the 17th hole on Sunday is as famous as any shot in golf history and the fact that it was his national championship made it that much more significant. After all, as a boy he hadn’t played “name the Masters champion” or “name the British Open or PGA champion” with his father. It was always – always – “name the U.S. Open champion.”

But what makes that memory so extraordinary for Watson is Nicklaus. It wasn’t just that he beat the man he considered the best to ever play the game in the championship he most wanted to win by finishing birdie-birdie, it was the reaction of that man when he walked off the 18th green.

“You did it to me again, you little SOB,” Nicklaus whispered in Watson’s ear. “I couldn’t be more proud of you.”

That reaction to a crushing defeat is what sets a champion apart from a great player. The same could be said of Watson after he came so agonizingly close to making history by winning the British Open at the age of 59 three years ago. “Hey fellas,” he said as truly dejected members of the media trudged into the interview room. “This isn’t a funeral, you know.”

It was that line that Nicklaus chose to quote Wednesday when he honored his old friend at the Memorial Tournament. The two have become extremely close in recent years, talking often. Nicklaus, who says he rarely watches golf on television, sat riveted along with everyone else on that Sunday in 2009 when Watson almost did the impossible at the site of his historic duel with Nicklaus 32 years earlier.

“Broke my heart,” Nicklaus said a few days later. “I really thought Tom was going to do it.”

They chat, they tease, they consult, they console. In 2007, the day after Tiger Woods won the PGA in a runaway for his 13th major title, Watson called Nicklaus.

“Did you watch the kid yesterday?” Watson asked.

'For a little while,” Nicklaus said.

“He’s pretty good,” Watson said, needling just a little bit.

“Tom,” Nicklaus answered, “I think he may be the greatest player of all time.”

He might be. He still might surpass Nicklaus’ total of 18 major titles.

But one thing is certain: Neither Woods nor anyone else is likely to have a rivalry – or a friendship – quite like Watson and Nicklaus. They’re linked forever, whether it is dueling in the sun in Scotland or on a windy links off Monterey Bay. Or walking arm-in-arm through the rain at Augusta.

Those memories are indelible in the minds of both men. And in the minds of all of those lucky enough to have witnessed them.