25: Watson holes in birdie chip at U.S. Open

The void ate away at him. Tom Watson had won three British Opens, two Masters and $3 million in prize money on the PGA Tour, but had never won the U.S. Open, and that's the one he wanted.

He had come close in both 1974 and 1975, but both times it eluded him. The next three years, he finished seventh, seventh and sixth. Then he missed the cut in 1979. Then he tied for third in 1980 and then slipped all the way down to a tie for 23d in 1981.

Without a U.S. Open title, he felt incomplete. "To be a complete golfer," Watson once said, "you have to win the Open."

So when Watson arrived at Pebble Beach for the U.S. Open in 1982, he was determined to fill this gaping hole in his resume.

June 20, 1982. Watson enters The Open as one of the sport's hottest players, and on the final day, the tournament starts with a logjam at the top of the leader board: 13 players are clustered together, all within four strokes of one another, with Watson tied for the lead at 4-under.

He makes the turn still 4-under, then birdies 11 on a 22-foot putt to take the lead at 5-under. At 14, a par 5 of 565 yards that has jinxed Watson over time, his third shot is short of the green, stopping on the back edge, 35 feet from the cup, but Watson nails it for birdie.

At the par-4 16th, he pushes his drive into a fairway bunker with a steep front wall. Watson's only shot back to the fairway is a blast out sideways. From a downhill lie, he hits a bad approach shot to the sloping green, almost 50 feet from the cup. Watson two-putts for a bogey, dropping him to 4-under and a tie with Jack Nicklaus, who had finished the tournament 15 minutes earlier.

"Being tied with two holes to go was a lot different than being a shot behind, which I would've been if I had three-putted 16 instead of two-putting from 50 feet," Watson would say later.

The par-3 No. 17 hole, which overlooks Carmel Bay, is a tantalizing 209-yarder that borders the jagged rocks of the Pacific Ocean shoreline. Watson walks to his ball and pulls a 2-iron into the rough on a downslope next to the green, 16 feet from the cup. His lie, however, is fantastic. The ball is perked up on fluffy grass and no grass behind it to interfere with the club head. He is six feet from the edge of the green, and he has 10 feet of green to work with.

He turns to his caddie, Bruce Edwards, and says, "I'm not trying to get it close. I'm going to make it." As Nicklaus watches Watson's predicament on TV, he says there is "no way in the world" Watson can get the ball close to the pin. "The only way to get it close is to hole it," Watson says to himself.

Watson opens the blade of his sand wedge, just as he would from a bunker, and scoops the club head under the ball, but not too hard. The ball pops straight up, falls on the green and begins rolling toward the stick.

"As soon as I hit the green I knew it would go in the hole," Watson would say later. The ball rolls straight for the cup, striking the flagstick and dropping in for one of the most memorable shots in golf history, prompting a huge roar from the crowd. Watson raises his arms to the sky, grins widely, and says to Edwards, "I told you! See, I told you!"

''That was the best shot of my life," Watson would say. He knows that if the ball doesn't hit the flagstick, it would've gone six to eight feet past the cup. "That shot," Watson said, "had more meaning to me than any other shot of my career." The miracle chip shot gives Watson a one-stroke lead on Nicklaus. All Watson needs to do for the victory is to score a par 5 on the 18th hole. He birdies it for a two-stroke victory. The championship is finally his.

As the new Open champion walks off the 18th green, Nicklaus, a four-time Open champion, greets Watson with a smile. ''You're something else," Nicklaus tells Watson. ''That was nice going. I'm proud of you. I'm pleased for you."

Amazingly, in the past six years, four major championships have boiled down to a duel between Nicklaus and Watson on the back nine of the final round. And each time Watson has prevailed -- at Pebble Beach, the 1981 Masters, the 1977 Masters and the 1977 British Open at Turnberry.

Later in the interview tent, Nicklaus is told that Rogers, who had been paired with Watson, had suggested that if Watson were to chip 100 balls from that spot in the rough off the 17th green, he would not hole even one ball. "Try about 1,000 balls," Nicklaus would say, smiling.