Nicklaus and Watson give Pebble Beach another shot Duo returns to site of classic victories

June 17, 1992|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

PEBBLE BEACH, CALIF — PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Their rivalry was brief, but historic. They each dominated professional golf, but not in the same manner or for the same amount of time.

If Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson had to pick one shot that defined their legendary careers, it probably would have come here at the U.S. Open.

They came 10 years apart -- in 1972 and 1982, when each player was 32. They came on the same hole, the monstrously long par-3 17th. Each led to victories in the only two Opens played at Pebble Beach.

"It was the best shot I ever played at Pebble Beach," recalled Nicklaus. "It was one of the best shots I ever hit anywhere."

"That shot at 17 meant more to me than any shot I ever made," Watson said a few years later.

Nicklaus' shot -- a powerful 1-iron ripped through a 30-mph head wind, with the ball ricocheting off the flagstick and stopping five inches from the cup -- helped give him the third of his four Open titles.

Watson's shot -- a delicate, 16-foot chip with a sand wedge from the ankle-deep rough to the side of the green, with the ball rolling quickly downhill and falling into the cup --helped give him the first and only Open title in a career previously marred by Open collapses.

Those two shots will be remembered and relived this week -- not to mention replayed by ESPN and ABC -- when the U.S. Open returns for its 92nd championship beginning tomorrow. But it's unlikely Nicklaus or Watson will repeat his past magic at Pebble Beach.

Nicklaus, 52, hasn't won on the regular tour since his memorable 1986 victory at the Masters. He has played in only five events this year -- missing the cut at the Pebble Beach AT&T Challenge in January -- and is 185th on the money list.

"If I'm ever going to be competitive in an Open again, it should be here," Nicklaus said here yesterday.

Watson, 42, hasn't won a tour event in five years. But he did break a long drought with a victory at the Hong Kong Open in March, and has two top-10 finishes -- a tie for ninth at the AT&T and a tie for second at the Players Championship. He is 37th on the money list.

"There are a lot of flashbacks from '82, and I think I'm playing pretty well now," Watson said. "It's nice to be nostalgic. It's history, but it's gone."

The memories certainly will be stirred tomorrow, when Nicklaus, Watson and two-time Open champion Hale Irwin play together in one of the opening round's made-for-television threesomes.

And the memories are special.

By 1972, Nicklaus was well into his long stay at the top. He had been ranked No. 1 four times, had won five times the previous year and had won two U.S. Opens. He had won the Masters earlier that year, as well as the Crosby at Pebble Beach.

Though Arnold Palmer had slowly started to fade, he was still the most popular player in the world. After starting the final round three behind Nicklaus, he charged within a shot at the 14th hole. Many thought Palmer, then 42, was going to give it one last blast from the past.

But Palmer missed an eight-foot birdie putt. Nicklaus, playing two groups behind, saved bogey from 10 feet on No. 12, and built his lead back to three by the time he reached the 209-yard 17th hole. It would be over by the time he headed to No. 18.

"The putt [at No. 12] was very important, but the shot I'll always remember is the one at 17," said Nicklaus, who won seven tournaments that year and a then-record $320,542. "Winning in 1972 here was special, because it's the only time I won both the Masters and the Open."

While the tee shot at 17 exhibited the sheer power of Nicklaus, Watson's chip-in at 17 typified his shot-making ability. It also showed that he could bury the ghosts of his past Open failures.

Though he had won four of his five British Opens -- including a memorable shootout over Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977 -- Watson also had lost at least two U.S. Opens, at Winged Foot in 1974 and at Inverness in 1979.

"I'd fantasize I had to play the last two holes 2-under par to win," Watson said recently. "Of course, I'd always bogey them and tell myself, 'You've got a long way to go, kid.' "

But in 1982, Watson played out his dream. First came the chip-in for birdie at 17 to take a one-shot lead over Nicklaus. Then came an equally miraculous, but hardly remembered, 25-foot putt for birdie at 18.

Nicklaus, who had finished his round, was being interviewed by Jack Whitaker as Watson put his tee shot at 17 into the rough. Nicklaus was being congratulated for what would have been a record fifth Open title.

"I suppose my emotions could have been capsulized in two words: Oh, ----' ," Nicklaus recalled earlier this year. "I was thinking, 'I don't believe it.' It was an impossible shot. I think it will always bother me. You never get over something like that."

U.S. Open Golf

When: Thursday through Sunday, 72 holes of regulation (18-hole sudden-death playoff Monday if necessary).

Where: Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links

Who: A field of 156 players, including defending champion Payne Stewart, Masters champion Fred Couples, PGA champion John Daly and British Open champion Ian Baker-Finch. Also Tom Watson, the 1982 champion at Pebble Beach, and Jack Nicklaus, the 1972 champion there. Players with local ties include Fred Funk, Webb Heintzelman and Donnie Hammond.

How much: $1.5 million purse, with $275,000 first prize.

TV: ESPN live 3-6 p.m., 7:30-11 p.m. ABC 11:30 p.m. to midnight, Thursday. ESPN 2:30-6 p.m., 7:30-10:30 p.m., ABC 11:30 p.m. to midnight Friday. ABC 2:30-7 p.m., 3:30-8 p.m.

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