Twenty-four years old, Watson held a one-stroke lead heading into the final round of the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Facing brutal conditions and determined competition, the young golfer would falter, posting a final-round score of 79. He would finish fifth, five strokes behind the winner, Hale Irwin.
Afterwards, Watson sat alone in the locker room gathering his thoughts when he heard a voice. I know how you feel, son. Ive thrown away tournaments, too. If you ever want to talk about your game, call me. Watson looked up to see the legendary Byron Nelson at his side. It was an offer that Watson would take advantage of, winning his first tournament, the Western Open, soon after commencing. Just over a year later, Watson would win his first Open Championship at Carnoustie, joining the ranks of major champion (he would go on to win five Open Championships); however, his media-placed reputation for choking when in contention dogged him. Perceived poor play while in contention at the 1975 Masters and U.S. Open did not help to eradicate the moniker.
At the 1977 Masters, that perception would change. It was a classic final round that would feature a man-to-man slug-fest between Watson and the most feared man in the game at that time, Jack Nicklaus. Playing just behind Nicklaus, Watson would match the great man birdie for birdie. After making birdie on the 13th hole, Nicklaus would gesture with his arm to the patrons, acknowledging their wild cheering and support. Viewing this from the fairway, Watson misinterpreted the gesture as being intended for him, a pantomimed So There!
Watson would proceed to chase down Nicklaus, eventually taking the lead with a birdie on the 17th hole. When the 20-foot putt dropped, the roar was so loud, that Nicklaus backed away from his approach shot in the 18th fairway. He would later admit that Watsons birdie rattled him, and caused him to change his plan of attack on the hole. Instead of firing for the center of the green, he chose to attack the pin, resulting in a shot he caught slightly heavy, that ended up in the front bunker. The ensuing bogey by Nicklaus, and par on the same hole by Watson, would give Watson his first green jacket and a two-stroke victory (he would win again in 1981 and he would finish tied for second in 1978 and 1979, and a solo second in 1984). Nicklaus shot a final-round 66 to Watsons 67. It would not be the last time that Watson would stand toe-to-toe with Nicklaus, take his best, and persevere.
A footnote to this Masters was the lingering effect of the affair at the 13th hole. Watson caught up to Nicklaus outside the scoring tent and confronted him about the gesture at 13. Nicklaus assured Watson that the gesture was not meant for him and he meant him no ill will. Whether the incident had any lasting impact on their relationship is doubtful; however, it did serve to illustrate the fighting spirit of Tom Watson and his steely resolve to stand up to any challenge, perceived or otherwise, regardless of the source.
I proved I could win against the big boys, Watson would say following the impressive finish.
That years next major stop would belong to neither Nicklaus nor Watson. The 1977 U.S. Open at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., belonged to Hubert Green, who held or shared the lead in all four rounds, finishing at 2 under par and one stroke in front of Lou Graham.
So, the stage was set for a renewal of the burgeoning Nicklaus/Watson rivalry at the Turnberry Ailsa Course at the 1977 Open Championship, the first time the course would host the Championship. This was a tournament that would feature what has been called the greatest final round in major tournament history.
The Ailsa Course at Turnberry is one of the finest layouts in the entire world. As is often the case with classic golf courses, it has a fascinating history. Used as an airfield during the Second World War, as recently as a few years ago while digging out a bunker on the second hole, an unexploded bomb was discovered buried deep under ground.
In 1977, like many of the great links courses of the British Isles, it did not have an irrigation system, so if the weather was hot and dry, the course would run like a ball on a runway. At its best, links courses, the quintessential test of golf, are unpredictable. When they get hard and dry, ball control can become very, very challenging, to say the least. Such was the case in July, 1977. Conditions were uncharacteristically oppressive.
Prior to the start of the tournament, some thought the lack of wind and rain would actually make the course easier to play. Playing in his first Open Championship, Greg Norman speculated, during the practice rounds, that someone might shoot a 60 that week (Norman would miss the cut but would get revenge by winning the 1986 Open Championship at Turnberry). By the end of the week, the scoring average for the field over 72 holes would be near 10 over par.
Through the first two rounds, Watson and Nicklaus would post identical scores of 68 and 70, to sit one stroke off the lead, held by Roger Maltbie, after 36 holes. Maltbie had fired a second-round 66, after a first-round 71, to vault him into the lead. Also tied for second place were Green and Lee Trevino. Surely, it must be hard to get a good nights sleep when nursing a slim lead in front of that foursome?
The third round would belong to Watson and Nicklaus. Paired together, both played brilliant golf, matching each other birdie for birdie, posting matching 65s, and pulling away from the field by three strokes clear of second place, held by Ben Crenshaw, who shot a 66 in Round 3. Everyone anticipated that the pair would pick up right where they left off in April, and did they ever deliver!
However, the round did not start as anticipated and beguiled the drama that was to follow. Nicklaus birdied the second hole while Watson posted a bogey. He would then birdie the fourth hole. So, by the end of the fourth hole, Nicklaus had pulled ahead by three shots, an often insurmountable lead in the final round of a major by any of his pursuers. Remember, Nicklaus is remembered not only for his supreme skills, but also as one of the most intimidating golfers of all time. Seldom was Nicklaus the first to blink. Not only was he capable of heroics, but he possessed a supreme intellect, the ability to wait until his opponent erred, then exploiting the mistake. Whats more, many doubters began to give each other wayward glances, as if to affirm that here was Watson being the Watson of their accusations; another major opportunity spurned. But, major championships are not won by what other people think of you; they are won by what you have inside, and Watson was ready to prove, again, just how determined and convinced he was of his own mettle.
Watson would secure birdies at the fifth and seventh holes to cut Nicklaus margin to one stroke. He would tie him with another birdie at the eighth hole and then Watson would bogey the ninth to once again fall one behind. On the 10th hole, Watson would leave his approach shot short of the putting surface and his drive on the 11th hole would find a bunker. On both occasions, however, he would save par. Like a snake waiting to strike, Nicklaus would tighten the noose with a 25-foot birdie on the 12th hole to go back up by two strokes. Watson would bounce off the ropes with a birdie at the 13th hole to slice the margin to one, and the two would post identical pars on the 14th, after Watson missed a 6-foot putt for birdie. On the 15th hole, Watson would make a birdie, putting from 60 feet off the green and slamming his ball into the flagstick, bringing the metal-match play to all square.
The 16th hole also had its share of the dramatic. Watsons drive cleared a stream that cuts across the fairway, but settled on the hill above it, in front of the green. For a few agonizing seconds the fate of this Championship lay in the roll of the ball from this precarious perch. If the ball were to roll even a dimples worth back down the slope, his ball would have tumbled to the bottom of the stream bed. It held and both men would post par. The 17th hole is a relatively short par-5, just under 490 yards, played from an elevated tee to an elevated green. Both men hit perfect drives that split the fairway. However, Nicklaus caught his ball heavy and left his second shot well short of the green. Watson placed his second shot on the green in two, some 15 feet away for eagle. Nicklaus would negotiate his chip 4 feet from the hole. However, his birdie putt slid tortuously past the left side and he would settle for par when he knew he needed more. Watson would take the lead for the first time with a two-putt birdie.
The match moved to the final tee. Watson would later admit that prior to the hole playing out he informed his caddy that he would not be playing it safe, as he expected Nicklaus to make a birdie on the hole (it was logical for him to feel that way as Nicklaus seemed to have a habit of making birdie on the final hole, particularly when it mattered. As if being a preview of things to come, Nicklaus birdied the 18th hole in the first round after sinking a long, 25-foot winder).
Watsons 1-iron was played safely down the fairway, leaving a 7-iron to the green from there. Crushing into his drive with his trademark power and fade flight path, Nicklaus ball settled into the heather aside the fairway. Upon reaching his ball, he discovered that it had actually rolled under some gorse as well. Up first, Watson would hit one of the finest irons of his entire career, a perfectly struck 7-iron that would see the ball finish only 3 feet from the cup.
I hit it dead flush. It was one of the best shots I ever hit. Its something I will never forget, he would later recount.
Down one stroke, under gorse and heather and facing incredible pressure, in typical Nicklaus-esqe fashion, Nicklaus somehow found a way, tearing at the ball with his 8-iron and hitting a fabulous golf shot that finished some 40 feet from the cup.
In a vision near trademark at the Open, the gallery closed in around the competitors, consumed with frenzy, clearly grasping that they were witnessing history in their midst. Perhaps the greatest pressure putter the game has ever known, Nicklaus proceeded to snake his 40-foot birdie putt over knolls and swales, breaks and valleys, and remarkably, into the hole for birdie. The pressure now shifted squarely on the shoulders of Watson as his 3-foot putt must have seemed much longer at this juncture. If his tenacity at the Masters and through 71 holes of this Open were not enough, finally he had the chance to assert his status as a member of the club which included the greatest golfers the game has ever known. Watsons putt split the hole, securing his birdie, his triumph, and a bold new reputation.
Watson would finish with a final round 65, to Nicklaus 66. The pair finished eleven strokes ahead of third-place finisher, Hubert Green. Watson now owed his second Open title, his third major, and with an aggregate score of 268, he beat the previous Open record, set by Arnold Palmer in 1962 at Royal Troon, by eight strokes.
Perhaps as lasting an image from the Open as the spectacular play was when the gracious Nicklaus put his arm around the 10-years-younger Watson as they walked off the green. Youve seen my best and you have beaten it, Nicklaus would summarize.
And one of the greatest rivalries in the history of the game was in full bloom.
Copyright 2007 Matthew E. Adams Fairways of Life
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Editor's Note: Matt Adams is a golf journalist, best-selling author (Chicken Soup for the Soul, Fairways of Life) and a golf course general manager. To view Matt's books or sign up for his 'Golf Wisdom Newsletter,'go to www.FairwaysofLife.com.