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Watson Is Miraculous In 1982

A U.S. Open For The Ages, His Chip-In To Win Stunned Nicklaus

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 tweed jackets.” 

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 recalling. 

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 pick.

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 holes. 

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 year.

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.”

More Consistency
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 Rogers.  

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 behind him.

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 start. 

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 jittery passage.

“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 Kelley)

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 hyperbole).

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 he was.”

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.

Climactic Finish
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 it!”

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 the greens. 

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 head-to-head duels. 

Until Watson holed out, the Open seemed destined for a Monday playoff. 

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 defeat. 

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 ages.

Schupak is the Manager of New Media and Editor of www.wgv.com.



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