Watson Is Miraculous In 1982
A U.S. Open For The Ages, His Chip-In To Win Stunned
By Adam Schupak
Of all the remarkable moments from the 1982 U.S. Open, one
is indelibly etched in memory. Twenty years ago Tom Watson
called his shot and danced around the 17th green
at Pebble Beach after holing a miraculous chip shot.
The moment, preserved in video highlights, framed on office
walls, and noted whenever one mentions the Hall of Fame golfer,
was an instant classic before ESPN coined the phrase. Golf
writer Dan Jenkins wrote that the shot would be remembered
“for as long as men sew leather patches on the elbows of their
But strangely, 20 years has either fogged the collective
memory or clouded judgment, because unfortunately the rest
of the tournament’s heroics seem to have been forgotten.
Ironically, the 1982 U.S. Open has been reduced to one shot
-- a distance totaling the whopping sum of 20 feet. An inspired
final round charge by Jack Nicklaus, a slew of astonishing
recovery shots and perhaps the deadliest pressure putting
performance of all time turned in by Watson are lost in the
archives of history.
The chip shot immortalized Watson as one of golf’s legendary
champions, but the other 281 shots that week were equally
as significant and, on this notable anniversary, are worth
One Of The Favorites
Watson entered the championship as one of the clear-cut favorites.
In the past few years he had supplanted Nicklaus as the game’s
No. 1 player. His familiarity with the course from his college
days at nearby Stanford and as a two-time winner of the Bing
Crosby National Pro-Am also helped make him the prognosticators
|Tom Watson, then 32, had a poor start to the 1982 U.S.
Open. (USGA Photo Archives)
Nevertheless, Watson started slowly with a lackluster 2-over
72. Only a strong finish saved him from soaring higher.
He stepped to the 15th tee 3 over par in that first
round and in danger of slipping out of contention early. But
he rescued his round by birdieing three of the final four
At the completion of play, Australian Bruce Devlin and defending
British Open champion Bill Rogers shared the lead after posting
scores of 2-under-par 70. Nicklaus also had an uneven beginning
and was two shots farther back after a dismal 74.
After another seesaw 72 in round two, Watson stood a distant
five strokes off the pace set by Devlin, who at 44 was bidding
to become the oldest U.S. Open champion ever. At first glance,
Watson’s 11th attempt to win the event he had dreamed of capturing
since his childhood looked like it would have to wait another
Despite the deficit, Watson felt fortunate to be within
shouting distanceof the lead. “I shot a 77 and scored a 72,”
he told the media of his second-round performance.
Much like the first round, he pulled off several bold escapes
from the rough and was thankful that his round wasn’t any
worse. He required holing two bogey putts of more than 20
feet, and for the second straight day finished with a birdie-birdie
flurry to stay afloat in a tie with Nicklaus.
“I had really driven the ball poorly the first two days
and gotten away with murder,” said Watson.
“I made a slight swing correction going into the third round
and it gave me the type of swing that I could hit the ball
a lot straighter off the tee and more solid shots.”
Watson noticed that his swing had become too upright, and
in the third round he consistently squared his swing at impact
and executed his shots with astonishing sharpness. Watson
climbed into a share of the lead Saturday, taking advantage
of idyllic conditions in the third round. Overnight rains
softened Pebble’s greens and helped Watson shoot 68 to tie
One golfer who failed to take advantage of a defenseless
Pebble was second-round leader, Devlin, who trailed by two
shots following a 75. All told, 24
golfers broke par Saturday including Nicklaus who shot
71 and was lurking three strokes back.
It seemed only a matter of time before the Golden Bear’s
putter would come alive. He carded only six birdies through
three rounds despite “playing as well as he’d ever played
in an Open.” Nicklaus started sluggishly in the final round
with a bogey on the first hole and a disappointing par at
the par-5 2nd.
Nicklaus could have been deflated, but he was not. No one
was better at maintaining an even keel and striking when the
opportunity presented itself. He never wavered from his strategy,
expecting his wretched putting to suddenly repair itself.
Such a moment occurred when Nicklaus found life in his balky
putter and holed a lengthy putt at the third and turned in
his hottest stretch ever at the Open, birdieing five consecutive
holes from the 3rd through the 7th. His front-nine assault
against par lifted him from the edge of contention into a
tie with Watson and a stroke behind Rogers, teamed three groups
Under the barrage of birdies, Watson and Rogers held on
well. However, the first to falter was Devlin, who birdied
No. 6 for a momentary share of the lead at 5 under, but then
lost three strokes on the 7th and 9th to tarnish his promising
Watson countered a birdie on No. 2 with a bogey at No. 3
before settling into a stretch of steady par golf. He was
playing the style of golf that is mandatory to win the U.S.
Open -- a steady diet of fairways and greens -- and appeared
doggedly determined to atone for past failures. He wasted
legitimate opportunities to win the U.S. Open in 1974 and
1975. Rogers sensed that Watson was supremely confident.
“He started that round and it was all or nothing,"
said Rogers. "He knew it was his time and place. When
I saw him pull [out his] driver on the fourth hole I knew
he was serious. He drove it right in front of the green.
He wanted to win the tournament.”
While Watson’s prodigious drive resulted in a par that lacked
the flare and melodrama of Arnold Palmer driving the first
green at Cherry Hills in 1960, it signified that while he
may have lacked experience earlier in his career, he was now
the game’s preeminent player and the U.S. Open was the one
title he desperately coveted.
“I was aware of the U.S. Open probably before I got out
of diapers because my dad was a historian about the tournament,”
said Watson. “Ever since I was 10 years old I had dreamed
of winning the title.”
More Than Just 'The Shot'
Forgotten in the aftermath of one of golf’s most memorable
shots was the putting display Watson unleashed on Sunday.
That seemed an unlikely scenario when Watson nervously jabbed
his 3-foot birdie putt after a lovely tee shot at the par-3
7th and had to settle for par. Quickly shaking the experience
of the seventh, Watson holed a crucial 7-foot par putt on
No. 8 to remain 4-under.
Rogers held the lead at 5-under through five holes, but lost
momentum soon thereafter. He three-putted nine from 60-feet
to surrender the lead and stumbled at 10, unable to rescue
par from the greenside bunker and never recovered from this
“I was hitting my irons incredibly short that day and lagged
my first putt up to 4 feet and missed it,” said Rogers, recounting
his final round pitfalls. “It didn’t set me off because I
had been cruising until then but it got me going in the wrong
direction. When I bogeyed 10 out of the bunker I felt like
I wasn’t in control anymore.”
With nine holes to go, the outcome of the 1982 Open was
still very much in doubt and thus deserves to be replayed
virtually stroke by stroke and trauma by trauma. Watson easily
could have faded out of contention at the 10th.
His 7-iron approach missed the green badly to the right
and nestled into the native kikuyu grass, not far from the
cliff’s edge. A taxing big number awaited, but Watson violently
hacked at the stubborn grasses, advanced the ball 25 feet
short of the hole, and then fired his trademark toothy grin
as his par putt dropped in the cup.
“Ten was unbelievable," recalled an awestruck Rogers.
"Even to have found that ball was amazing and then to
chop it up onto the front fringe and make the putt, well,
that kind of started his heroics."
This would be the first of many long, sinuous putts Watson
would hole on the inward nine. At this stage in his career
he had complete confidence that if he missed them he would
make the 3- or 4-footer coming back. Moments later when Nicklaus
three-putted the 11th green from 20 feet, Watson
regained the undisputed lead. He widened that lead to two
strokes with a beautifully engineered birdie at 11 capped
off by a 20-foot putt that tumbled in.
|Signature Shot: Watson chips in on No. 17, which ultimately
won the championship. (Courtesy World Golf Hall of Fame/John
Seemingly every time he fought his way into the lead, Watson
would immediately stumble back by unfurling an inglorious
swing before rallying again. Such was the case at 12 where
Watson bogeyed when he failed to avoid the perils from the
front greenside bunker. The margin was reduced to one. At
13, he converted his first orthodox par since the ninth.
Up ahead at No. 15, Nicklaus coolly holed a 15-foot birdie
putt to grab a share of the lead at 4-under. It was short-lived
because Watson responded by draining a bending 40-foot downhiller
for birdie at 14. “That was the best read I’ve ever given
him,” said caddie Bruce Edwards. (In a separate interview,
Watson reiterated this claim, adding credibility to Edwards’s
statement and assuring this reporter that it was not merely
Watson knocked his sand wedge approach to the back fringe
of the lengthy par 5 and faced a frighteningly fast putt.
It was the sort of birdie effort where you cast aside any
notion of trying to hole the ball, and concentrate on rolling
it slowly just below the line of the break so that it hopefully
would come to rest a couple of feet below the cup.
Herbert Warren Wind, who was following Watson’s group on
foot, wrote in the New Yorker that “halfway to the
hole, the ball seemed to pick up speed. It was still moving
fast when it dived into the middle of the cup.”
Rogers was even more succinct. “Humans three-putt from where
Watson protected his lead with a routine par at 15. He
hit every fairway on Sunday with monotonous repetition until
he misfired at No. 16 and inhospitably landed in the crease
of the right fairway bunker that his good friend, Sandy Tatum,
had deepened before the championship to restore it to Jack
Neville’s original design. Watson’s only option was to blast
out sideway into the fairway on No. 16. From the downslope,
his sand wedge lacked spin and skittered to the back of the
green some 60 feet beyond the front flagstick location.
Watson faced a par putt that he estimated broke at least
10 feet to the right. He cozied the putt down the slippery
slope within a foot of the hole and tapped in for bogey.
Unfazed by the drop shot, Watson instead was buoyed by the
thought that he had avoided disaster.
“That putt more than anything, even the ones that I made,
kept me in the tournament. I had to get that putt down in
two,” said Watson.
With the lead vanished, the stage was set for one of the most
memorable climaxes in golf history. The 17th, playing 209
yards that day, was the most difficult on the course in the
final round. Watson carefully chose a 2-iron.
Ten years earlier, Nicklaus struck the flagstick with a
1-iron on the hole for the decisive birdie that sealed his
third of four Open titles. Watson, seeking his own cherished
moment, boldly aimed for the flagstick, but watched helplessly
as the ball drifted left and chased through the green into
the gnarly fescue grass that guards the shallow hourglass-shaped
green. As he headed to the green Watson knew his chances hinged
solely on receiving a decent lie.
Shortly before Watson reached the 17th tee, Nicklaus
holed out up ahead on No. 18 for the clubhouse lead. He gallantly
shot 68. Having finished six strokes better than his winning
total in 1972, Nicklaus felt he was on the verge of an unprecedented
fifth Open title.
After watching Watson’s tee shot on a TV monitor, a glint
of triumph flashed in his eye and he declared aloud that Watson’s
chances of getting up and down were dim.
“I thought it was over. I thought I had won the tournament,”
said Nicklaus in later years.
Mere mortals in Watson’s shoes would have surely suffered
apoplexy. Undaunted, he momentarily frowned and then surrounded
himself in a bubble of intense concentration. He had anticipated
facing just such circumstances.
As Watson explained later he had long emulated the example
of Ben Hogan and routinely practiced the toughest shots or
the shots he thought he might face on the course that day.
“I’ve practiced that shot for hours, days, months and years,”
he said. “It’s a shot you have to know if you’re going to
do well in the Open, where there’s high grass around the greens.”
Watson’s bag man, Edwards, knew that a superlative touch
was required to finish perhaps 5 to 7 feet from the hole.
Imagining the best-case scenario he could, Edwards optimistically
left his partner with the parting shot, “Get it close.” Watson
famously replied: “I’m not gonna get it close, I’m gonna make
Before fulfilling the prophecy, Watson took his time, letting
the suspense gather round the fateful green. Blessed with
a fluffy lie, he managed to slip the leading edge of his sand
wedge underneath the ball and puffed the ball barely onto
the putting surface. The loft that he was able to muster
on such a short shot spoke volumes of his gentle touch around
Once the ball landed it picked up speed and, as if drawn
by a magnet, obediently curved toward the hole, hit the stick
flush and fell for a miraculous birdie. Watson said later
that he immediately knew it was going in and he burst into
a spontaneous dance, pointing at Edwards as if to say, “I
told you so.”
Finishing It Off
Rogers had previously witnessed Watson’s brilliance firsthand.
Watson had chipped in at the penultimate hole to edge him
in the 1980 Byron Nelson Classic. “I’ve seen him do a lot
of remarkable things but 17 was shocking,” said Rogers, remembering
his stunned incredulity. “That birdie put me in absolute
shock – I’ll remember it all my life.”
Having turned a surefire bogey into birdie, Watson sauntered
to the 18th tee alone in the lead by a stroke,
a mere par away from achieving his lifelong dream. Standing
on the tee qualified as a surreal experience. As a college
student he used to drive up to Pebble Beach on Saturday mornings,
tee off before anyone else was on the course, and pretend
he was neck and neck with Nicklaus.
Ever the consummate pro, Watson stayed focused only on the
present. The par-5 18th at Pebble Beach, which
hugs the Pacific to the left, is hardly a cream puff. Watson’s
3-wood landed in the heart of the fairway and after wisely
laying up with a 7-iron, he crisply feathered his approach
safely on the green. For good measure, Watson’s 20-foot birdie
putt curled lazily into the hole to finish in storybook fashion.
One of the first to congratulate him behind the 18th
green was none other than Nicklaus, always the good sportsman,
who once again had pushed Watson to new heights. While both
heavyweights would pad their resumes with more majors – two
British Opens for Watson and the historic sixth Masters for
Nicklaus – sadly, this would be the last of a series of peerless
Until Watson holed out, the Open seemed destined for a Monday
In retrospect, what did we miss? Perhaps we were cheated
from enjoying one of the most exhilarating playoffs in the
history of golf. Nicklaus vs. Watson in an 18-hole playoff
at Pebble Beach with the stakes at its highest. We’ll never
know, of course, but it likely would have been a memorable
day. Thirteen years later they anticlimactically squared
off again there in a Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match
where Nicklaus earned a bit of retribution.
Sports Illustrated commemorated Watson’s victory
on its cover by simply saying, “Sorry about that, Jack.”
Nicklaus repetitively has called it his most heartbreaking
Of the 153 players in the field, Watson was the only man
to equal par or better in all four rounds. It was a triumph
borne of strength -- both technical and personal. The specter
of Sam Snead, who failed to win the U.S. Open during his illustrious
career, loomed over Watson and now that burden was lifted.
Watson summoned the shot of his career at the most crucial
juncture, but as Bill Rogers rightly pointed out, there were
really three knockout blows: the miraculous par on No. 10,
the dramatic birdie putt on No. 14, and of course, the still-fabled
chip-in at 17.
In future years the 1982 U.S. Open should be remembered
not just for one audacious shot, but rather as one for the
Schupak is the Manager of New Media and Editor of www.wgv.com.