From the Golf Journal Archives - Tom Watson, Pebble Beach, and a Classic Rivalry Revisited

Mar 12, 2010

The 1982 US. Open developed into another in a series of confrontations between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, the best players in the game.

By Robert Sommers

(Note: This article originally appeared in the August 1982 issue of Golf Journal.)

By pitching into the hole for a birdie on the 17th at Pebble Beach and winning the United States Open Championship in June, Tom Watson established himself as the premier player of the period, and, at the same time, continued a rivalry that is among the most intense and stimulating the game has seen.

Over the last five years, Watson and Jack Nicklaus have given us some of our most exciting moments, and the last round at Pebble Beach was not the least of them. Throughout those final 18 holes, the most stirring challenge to Watson came from Nicklaus, and it fell two
strokes short only because of Watson's melodramatic finish – two birdies on the last two holes, where par or worse seemed likely.

Watson won with scores of 72-72-68-70—282. Nicklaus shot 74-70-71-69—284. Bill Rogers, Bob Clampett, and Dan Pohl tied for third at 286.

The rivalry between Nicklaus and Watson has been a refreshing development in a game that seems to breed rivalry. Whenever we have competition between two or three great players such as Nicklaus and Watson, the game seems to prosper. Certainly it did in the periods when Vardon, Braid, and Taylor dominated British golf early in the century, and later during the periods of Jones and Hagen, Nelson and Hogan, Hogan and Snead, Palmer and Nicklaus, and Nicklaus and Trevino.

Rivalries such as these do more than enliven the interest of the public; they motivate the players and drive them to extend themselves. Players such as these do not take losing lightly. It is not probable that either Watson or Nicklaus would have played so well in the 1977 British Open, for example, had they not put so much pressure on each other, one forcing the other to play one sub-par round after another and execute flawless shot after shot just to keep pace. How they responded to such pressure is, of course, an indication of their characters as well as their golf skills.

Nor is it likely that either would have done so well in the fourth round at Pebble Beach had the other not been in the hunt, although this is rank speculation. Each of them had other matters on his mind. Watson was trying to win his first Open and thereby round out a career that, marvelous though it has been, was still incomplete. His continual failures in the Open led to suspicions that something might be lacking in his character. We shall hear no more of that now, especially after the way he came back after looking as if he might lose yet again. Nicklaus, for his part, was attempting to win his fifth Open, and no one has ever done that – not Jones, not Hogan.

Still, it is the rivalry, the head-to-head combat between the two, particularly in the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the Masters Tournament, that has marked this period we’re in. It began with the Masters in 1977, when Nicklaus went into the last round trailing Watson by three strokes, shot 66 – six under par – and gained only one stroke. Watson shot 67.

THE INTENSITY REACHED an even higher pitch later that summer when the two of them matched stroke-for-stroke through the first three rounds of the British Open, played at Turnberry, each of them playing the first three rounds in 68-70-65. Nicklaus played the last round in 66, but Watson did him one better, with 65, and won with a record score of 268 against 269 by Nicklaus. Hubert Green was third, but he was 10 strokes behind Nicklaus.

Neither won either the Open or the PGA that year, although Nicklaus missed a playoff for the PGA by one stroke, but in the 288 holes they played in those four competitions, they finished just one stroke apart, Watson ahead. They were two strokes apart in the Masters, one apart in the U.S. Open, one apart in the British Open, and three strokes apart in the PGA.

This was, indeed, a highly unusual year; they’ve never since performed quite so evenly. When Nicklaus won the Open in 1980, Watson was four strokes behind; later that year when Nicklaus also won the PGA, Watson was 14 strokes behind. When Watson won the British Open in 1980, Nicklaus trailed by nine strokes, and when Watson won the Masters in 1981, Nicklaus was two behind.

While they have not given us sustained periods of suspense as Snead and Hogan did in the early 1950s, when for a period of four years they alternated winning the Masters, or the early 1960s when Palmer and Nicklaus did the same, they are still the central figures whenever they are in the same field.

We are left wondering, however, how long it can last. Nicklaus is, after all, 42, and very few golfers have been able to play at such a high level beyond that age. On the other hand, Hogan was 48 in 1960 when he very nearly won at Cherry Hills, in Denver. Nicklaus has shown every indication that he is capable of playing at a championship level well into the future.

Watson, however, is just 32, and while he is 10 years older than Nicklaus was when Jack won his first Open, in 1962, he is four years younger than Hogan when he won his first, in 1948.

WINNING THE OPEN ends a series of frustrations for Watson. He has been in position to win it several times, but he has never been equal to the job. He had his first chance in 1974, when he took the third-round lead at Winged Foot. Even though he was playing winning golf, he seemed to lack confidence. When he finished that third round, he asked a friend if he thought he could win.

“Do you think you can?” the friend replied.

Well, Watson said he thought he could, but the next day he three-putted twice on the first nine, shooting 38, and when he bogeyed both the 11th and 12th he fell three strokes behind Hale Irwin, the eventual winner. Watson shot 41 on the second nine, 79 for the 18 holes.

He was in position once again the following year, at Medinah, near Chicago. Leading the field after 36 holes, Watson once again saw his game fall apart. At the beginning of the third round, he three-putted the first hole from 20 feet and then stunned the gallery by missing from one foot on the second. He hit only nine greens, shot 78, claimed gallery members shouted “Remember Winged Foot” at him, and dropped from contention.

In 1980 he went into the last round two strokes behind Nicklaus and Isao Aoki, the co-leaders, but he put himself in a hole immediately by pushing his drive into the trees along the right side of the first fairway at Baltusrol and lost a stroke to par. He birdied the second, but he three-putted twice on the first nine, missed several short putts on the second, and when he finally made his second birdie he was on the 16th hole, much too late.

Again last year at the Merion Golf Club he was in the hunt, only four strokes off the lead after 36 holes. He was playing steadily through the third round, a stroke under par after 14 holes, but on the 15th, a shortish par 4 that doglegs right, he hooked his tee shot out of bounds, made 7, and finished the round nine strokes off the lead.

Those early failures of 1974 and 1975 were easily excusable; Watson was still a young man new to the tortures of championship golf and the demands it makes of those who aim so high. The failures of the last two years, however, were not so easily excused, because by then Watson had established himself as the best in the game. After 1981, therefore, it began to look as if Watson, like Sam Snead before him, might never win the Open and might spend the remainder of his career in hopeless pursuit of it, the most important championship in golf and the one he wanted to win above all others.

That speculation, fortunately, has been interred, and it could not have found a more fitting burial ground than the Pebble Beach Golf Links, a thoroughly testing course that ranges along the craggy bluffs of the Pacific Ocean near the village of Carmel, 110 miles south of San Francisco. It is especially fitting that Watson should have won there because he played it so much in his college days when he attended Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, about an hour and three quarter’s drive north.

Three or four times a year a group would leave Palo Alto in early morning for the drive to Pebble Beach. The routine would be 36 holes, and after that they would play the first through fifth, cut over to the 14th fairway and hit something like an 8-iron to the green, and play in from the 15th – 45 holes for one green fee.

PEBBLE BEACH is one of the world’s marvels, certainly one of the three or four best golf courses in the world (some claim it is, indeed, the very best). It was designed in 1919 by Jack Neville, a real estate salesman who had won the California State Amateur five times. It was built on land owned by Del Monte Properties, an organization formed by Samuel F. B. Morse, nephew of the inventor of the telegraph. Morse had been commissioned by the Southern Pacific Railroad to dispose of some unwanted real estate.

Recognizing not only the beauty of the property but also its potential value, Morse bought it, hired Neville to lay out a course, and gave him the choice land to work with, the high bluffs along Carmel Bay. Neville spent three weeks walking the land and visualizing holes. What he finally worked out is superbly designed and scenically spectacular. Eight of its 18 holes play along the water’s edge; these are the very heart of Pebble Beach.

The course begins with a series of short, relatively easy holes well away from the water’s edge, and then begins to move along the sea at the fourth. The classic stretch begins at the sixth, a par 5 of 516 yards whose green sits atop a high escarpment overlooking Stillwater Cove, where sailing yachts ride at anchor. From there it plunges downward at the seventh, a tantalizing par 3 of 110 yards with a green set on a rocky promontory that probes into the bay.

From then on you are playing golf of the most demanding order. The next three holes skirt the edge of the bay before the course turns inland again, playing among the cypress, eucalyptus, live oaks, and Monterey pines before returning to the sea once more at the 17th and the 18th.

Every time you walk this golf course you become more impressed, not only with the routing and the scenic beauty, but also with the quality of the golf needed to navigate safely through it.

Most of those in the Open field had played Pebble Beach many times in the Crosby National Pro-Amateur, and they knew that the trick to scoring well is to make your birdies early and then hold on for dear life. Of the seven players who were under-par 72 in the first round, five scored better on the first nine than the second. Danny Edwards, for example, who was in the 10th group of three players to leave the first tee, began his first round with a birdie on the first, an eagle 3 on the second, a par 4 on the third, birdie 3 on the fourth, par 3 on the fifth, and a birdie 4 on the sixth. He was five under after six holes. Three more pars and he was through the first nine in 31. He followed a par 4 on the 10th with another birdie 3 at the 11th, and with seven holes to play he was six under par – par in for 66. It wasn’t to be. He dropped two strokes at the 14th, a par 5, where he missed the green and then missed a putt from inside a foot, three-putted the 16th from 25 feet for a bogey, and then took three strokes to reach the 17th green. He was back in 40. Within five holes he had lost five strokes and finished only a stroke below par.

THE CO-LEADERS, at 70, two under par, were Bill Rogers and Bruce Devlin, and while Rogers was not unexpected, Devlin certainly was. He is 44 years old, a part-time player at the most, and he hasn’t won a tournament since 1972, Today he is more interested in designing golf courses than in playing them, and when he finished he quipped that he was playing from memory.

It was not at all surprising, however, to find Rogers at the top. In the last year he has developed into a very fine big-occasions player. He was second last year to David Graham at Merion, tied with George Burns, and he won the British Open. Now, in the Open, he was playing his best golf of the year. He was to be in the chase all the way and might have made it a three-man battle had some putts fallen in the last round.

Devlin and Rogers were a stroke ahead of Edwards; Bobby Clampett, a favorite of the Pebble Beach galleries, since his home is in the neighborhood; Calvin Peete, the most accurate driver on the PGA Tour; Terry Diehl, and Jim King.

Watson finished with 72, tied with eight others. For most of the day it seemed as if he would disappoint us once again. He began by losing strokes on both the first and third holes, won them back with birdies on the fourth and fifth, but still, after 14 holes, he was three over par. One of the great putters of the game, he three-putted the 14th from 25 feet.

Just when all seemed lost, Watson turned his game around. He played a sand wedge to 10 feet on the 395-yard 15th and holed it for a birdie, drove into a fairway bunker on the 16th, a 403-yard par 4, and played a crisp 9-iron to a foot and a half for a second birdie, and then played a medium iron to within 15 feet on the dangerous 17th, a par 3 that was playing 175 yards in the first round. He holed that one for a third consecutive birdie.

From three over, Watson had come back to even par. A par 5 on the 18th, where he missed a birdie chance from five feet, and he finished the round with 72. Looking back, those three holes were probably the salvation of Watson in the 1982 Open. Had he finished that first round with 75, he might not have been able to make up those lost strokes over the next 54 holes.

WATSON SEEMED TO BE letting his game fall apart again in the second round when he played the first nine in 38, the result of some very loose iron play. Three times he was in bunkers, and on the ninth hole he took two strokes to get out of the sand and had to hole a 20-footer to save his bogey. Once again he saved himself with late birdies on the incoming nine, holing from three feet on the 14th and from 20 feet on the 17th. He finished with another 72, and at 144, he was five strokes behind Devlin, who shot 69 for 139. Larry Rinker, a 25-year-old Florida boy who had been on the Tour only a year, shot 67 and was second at 141, followed by Scott Simpson, at 142, following 69 in the second round.

Rogers slipped to 73 and was tied at 143 with Andy North, the 1978 Open Champion, Calvin Peete, and Lyn Lott. The scoreboard looked very strange, indeed.

Nicklaus, meanwhile, had come back from an opening 74 and shot 70 to tie Watson, Tom Kite, Bob Clampett, and George Burns. Burns had one of the more unusual rounds in Open history. After an opening par 4 on the first hole, he birdied the next six. His iron play was outstanding; his longest putt was from 10 feet, on both the third and seventh holes, and he was able to reach the green of the sixth, the 515-yard par 5, with a 3-wood second shot. He two-putted from eight feet.

No one could document a player ever before making six consecutive birdies in the Open.

Like Edwards, Burns lost it all on the second nine. He shot 42.

Beginning his move now, Watson shot 68 in the third round, and from a tie for eighth place, he shot into a tie for the lead with Bill Rogers at 212. Rogers shot 69.

They were two strokes ahead of Develin, who finally shot the 75 everyone was expecting of him, Burns, Simpson, and David Graham, who was doggedly defending his championship. Graham had hit two balls out of bounds in the first round but still managed 73. He followed with 72 in the second round and 69 in the third. Graham hung on through much of the last round, and he was actually three under par after 12 holes, but a double-bogey 6 on the 13th killed his chances.

IN THE MEANTIME, Nicklaus was playing some rather steady but dull stuff in the third round. While he continued to hit greens and place his ball within reasonable distance of the hole, he wasn’t dropping his putts – or at least not enough of them to matter. After a birdie at the second, he ran off seven consecutive pars before dropping a 20-footer for a birdie at the 10th. Two under for the round, he lost one stroke on the 12th, a very difficult par 3 of 204 yards, where he missed a par from two-and-a-half feet. He had the ball inside 20 feet on each of the last four holes, but didn’t make a birdie. He shot 71 for the round, 215 for the 54 holes, and he went into the last round three strokes out of the lead and apparently heading nowhere.

Nicklaus was in the fourth-from-last group off the tee Sunday, the last day, paired with Peete, also at 215. After two holes it seemed obvious that this was not to be Jack’s Open. For the second straight day he was short with his approach to the first hole. The ball settled in rough grass to the right, and while he salvaged a par in the third round, he didn't in the fourth. Nicklaus has never been at his best with his short game. Here he played a miserable chip that never once seemed to move in the direction of the hole and left him at least 12 feet, perhaps more, from the hole. He missed the putt, taking 5. When he failed to birdie the second, it looked grim, indeed.

It is never wise, however, to underestimate this remarkable man. His resolve is so strong, his will so powerful, he cannot be dismissed if there are still holes to be played. Just as quickly as he threw two strokes away (a par on the second is the same as a lost stroke, for it is an easy birdie), he put together a string of five consecutive birdies, from the third hole through the seventh, and before we were quite prepared for it, we had Nicklaus four under par for the day, five under for the distance. At that moment he was tied for the lead with Bill Rogers, who was five under through the fifth, a stroke ahead of Watson and Devlin. Devlin dipped five under with a birdie at the sixth, but he lost three strokes on the seventh and ninth and fell out of the race.

Just as quickly as he made all those birdies, Nicklaus began to lose strokes. He dropped one at the eighth, where he took three from high rough at the edge of the green, and he three-putted the 11th from 20 feet. Now he was three under for the distance.

Watson was making no headway, either. After nine holes, he and Rogers were still tied at four under par after 36s. Watson had thrown away one stroke when he missed a birdie putt from two feet on the seventh, and Rogers, after making a birdie at the fourth to go five under, dropped back to four under with a bogey at the ninth.

WHILE WATSON WAS having no luck in making up strokes, a remarkable thing was happening, nonetheless. An unreliable driver, Watson had not missed a fairway through the first nine holes, and he was hitting the ball very far, sometimes as much as 30 or 40 yards past Rogers.

With nine holes to play, then, Rogers and Watson were tied for the lead at four under par and Nicklaus, playing two holes ahead, was three under. Soon, no one else would matter.

Looking back, we can see now that Watson won because he was able to survive some rather loose iron play on the second nine. After a very long drive on the 10th, he misplayed a 7-iron. The ball came down into a very dangerous position, in a depression near the edge of the cliff that plunges down to the sandy beach, very short and to the right, nestled among the kikuyu grass, a very coarse strain that is devilish to play from. A very quick player, Watson took hardly any time, and with a sand wedge pitched the ball onto the collar of the green, still short of the hole. From about 20 or 25 feet, Watson holed the putt to save par.

At the same time, Rogers, perhaps steering his ball away from the cliff, pulled his shot into a bunker and bogeyed, dropping a stroke behind Watson, He was never again to be a factor. Another bogey at the 12th dropped him to two under par, and there he remained throughout the day.

Watson, on the other hand, fol¬lowed up his saving par at the 10th with a birdie at the 11th, rolling in a putt from outside 20 feet. Another pushed iron from the 12th tee put him in a bunker and he matched Rogers’s bogey. Four under par once again. Playing two holes ahead of Watson, Nicklaus then birdied the 15th, holing a 15-foot putt, and when Watson parred the 13th, they were tied for the lead, the two best players of the last five years battling for the most important championship in golf.

Nicklaus parred in from there, shooting 69 and 284 for the 72 holes, six strokes under his winning total of 1972. Instead of leaving the 18th green, however, he hung around waiting for Watson to finish.

At the time Nicklaus was playing the 16th, Watson was approaching the 14th, a long par 5 of 565 yards, uphill from the tee shot landing area to the green. From a cuppy lie, Watson pitched his third shot to the green. The ball hit the green surface, but it had little backspin and rolled a few inches onto the collar, 35 feet from the hole. From there, Watson holed the putt, and with that birdie moved a stroke ahead of Nicklaus.

After a par at the 15th, Watson missed his first fairway of the round, pushing his tee shot into a new bunker at the 16th. The grassy face of this bunker rises straight up from the sand, and because the floor is pitched toward the front, balls that go in tend to roll close to the face. From where Watson’s ball lay, it was not possible for him to play toward the green. He pitched out sideways to the fairway, and then played onto the green, well away from the hole. His putt, good though it was, missed the hole, and now Watson was four under par, tied with Nicklaus, who was watching on a television monitor near the 18th green.

WATSON WAS FROWNING as he stood on the 17th tee. He needed two pars to tie, a birdie to win, and the 17th and 18th at Pebble Beach are not pushovers. The 17th was playing at 209 yards in the last round. After Rogers played a very fine 4-wood onto the green, Watson drew out his 2-iron.

When the ball began its flight, it looked as if it would be a fine shot, drawing slightly from right to left. He had been a little too quick with his hands, though, and the ball drew more than he planned. It hit on the edge of the green once, then hopped into weedy rough between two bunkers.

The situation looked grim. Now there could be no thought of a birdie – only of some means to save par. Watson had two breaks. The ball had not snuggled deep into the grass, but seemed to be sitting off the ground a bit. The shot could be played. That was the first break. The second: Watson is one of the few people not in a cage who practice this shot. He knew how to play it, and he had the confidence to believe he might even hole it.

That, of course, is exactly what he did. The ball popped out of the grass, dropped onto the collar of the green and ran right into the hole. There was some speculation that, had the ball missed hitting the flagstick it might have gone 15 feet beyond, but the fact is that it did hit the flagstick and did drop into the hole for the birdie.

When it fell, Watson, unable or unwilling to restrain his emotions, gave in to his excitement and ran around the green, smiling and waving his arms. He knew he had won. All that was left was the 18th, and he would play that carefully – 3-wood from the tee, 7-iron for his second, 9-iron onto the green, and then a careful lag putt. That the putt fell didn’t matter; the extra stroke was a bonus. As Watson left the green, Nicklaus was waiting for him. They shook hands warmly, and Nicklaus said to him: “You're something else.”

Indeed.

Tom Watson’s pitch from the rough into the cup on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach will be remembered as long as some other great shots, like Gene Sarazen’s double eagle in the 1935 Masters Tournament. Watson’s shot, for a birdie, earned him his first U.S. Open. (USGA Museum)