Tom Watson was center stage in golf's most beautiful theater. Here he was on the 17th hole of the Pebble Beach Golf Links-a course a he treasured, a course he stole away to as a Stanford University student, a course he knew defined great players-with the 1982 U.S. Open championship within his reach.
It was a gray Sunday at Pebble Beach, but the atmosphere was electric. Watson was tied for the lead with the mighty Jack Nicklaus with two holes to play. Nicklaus was sitting in the scorer's tent, finishing with a 69, his fate in Watson's hands.
Watson struck his 2-iron shot to the long par 3 17th, trying to find any piece of the green's tiny left side. When the ball finished in the gnarly rough off the left side of the green, leaving Watson a chip he would do well to get 10 feet from the hole, Nicklaus was feeling pretty good about his chances.
Watson was feeling otherwise.
After assessing the shot, Watson chose a sand wedge. As caddy Bruce Edwards handed it to him, he said: "Get it close."
To which Watson replied: "I'm not going to get it close, I'm going to make it."
And he did, for a birdie.
With one of the most dramatic shots in golf history Watson won his only U.S. Open championship. The shot and the title were made immeasurably grander by his defeat of the legendary Nicklaus and by the grandeur of the setting. To win it at Pebble Beach, a course that Nicklaus himself cherished and championed, was to win at the very pinnacle of golf in America.
Now the Open returns to Pebble Beach this June for the fifth time since it was first held there in 1972, and if it is anything at all like the four that proceeded, it will be among the most memorable of championships.
From Nicklaus's methodical win in 1972 to Watson's chip-in win to Tom Kite's survival-of-the fittest win in 1992 to Tiger Woods's dominating win in 2000, the Opens at Pebble Beach have certainly been the most dramatic of the television age and rank among the best of all time.
And don't you think Tiger Woods doesn't want to get back to Pebble Beach? It was here in 2000 that Woods put on the most overwhelming display of championship golf ever, pulverizing and humbling the field with a 15-shot victory, the largest margin of victory in a major. His break from golf to deal with his substantial infidelity issues will end at the Masters Tournament in April, but he claimed a certain percentage of ownership rights in Pebble Beach with his AT&T National Pro-Am win in February of 2000, coming from seven shots behind in the final round, then his General Sherman march to the Open title in June. You just think he has to come back to Pebble Beach.
He won't be alone. You can expect Woods will have competition this year-from the dogged Steve Stricker, from the magical-if-mercurial Phil Mickelson, from the Englishmen Lee Westwood and Paul Casey, from the Irishman Padraig Harrington, from the exciting Colombian Camilo Villegas. Maybe upstarts like Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy or Ryo Ishikawa will be in the mix. And shouldn't the 60-year-old Watson, based on his extraordinary performance at the British Open last year, get one more crack at an Open at Pebble Beach with an exemption from the United States Golf Association?
Whether the championship this June comes down to a lap-the-field victory like Woods's or a neck-and-neck battle like Watson's, Pebble Beach will showcase it like no other course. This Open is very much a homecoming for golf in America. No other course in the Open rota-not Winged Foot, not Oakmont, not Baltusrol or even Shinnecock Hills-evokes such stirring images of the game or such a passionate longing.
Of the thousands of words Nicklaus has used to describe and analyze his favorite course, just one of them tells you everything you need to know. He calls Pebble Beach "majestic."
"This is as close as we have to a national course for our championship," says Kite. "Just think of it-what other course combines so many wonderful things that are great about our game? The site is unmatchable anywhere in golf. The layout is terrific. The shot values are wonderful. The views are jaw-dropping. It's not a private club. Anybody can play there. Everybody wants to play there."
"The greatest recognition our resort can achieve is that we can handle and put up the stern test that the USGA requires for an Open," says RJ Harper, senior vice president for golf at Pebble Beach and general chairman of the Open. "To be considered a true championship is extremely important to us for business purposes. It creates demand across the world."
From any aspect, Pebble Beach reaches into our senses. Standing on the sixth green, the entire course in your view over 180 degrees. Standing on the 7th green, waves crashing against the rocks while sea otters dive for abalone (cracking the shell with a rock on their stomachs as they float atop the kelp beds). Standing on the precipice of the 8th hole, contemplating the most awesome shot in golf across the harrowing chasm. Standing on the 17th tee, hitting to the largest green on the course, except that it is bisected into the two smallest targets. Standing on the 18th tee, marveling at the seething Pacific and praying to avoid it. And praying that you will come back.
Now Pebble beckons the world's finest players again. Will the winner stack up to Pebble's champions of the past? Will he be among the greats? Will Pebble Beach again define the greatness of a player as it defines all that is great about the game itself?
Here's a look at the four previous Opens at Pebble Beach and the great champions who won them.
Jack Nicklaus, 1972
By 1972 Jack Nicklaus had established himself as the best player of all time. He had won 10 major championships and had lost in a play off for the Open the previous year to Lee Trevino. With the Open played for the first time at Pebble Beach, Nicklaus was the clear favorite. He had won the second of his two U.S. Amateur Championships at Pebble in 1961. He had won three "Crosbys." It was his favorite course.
The United States Golf Association had made sure Pebble would be a stern test of golf. The rough was up, and the greens were mowed to the nub and starved of water. If there was any weather at all, this was going to be one tough Open.
"Pebble Beach is not a difficult golf course under benign conditions," says Nicklaus. "It's a very difficult golf course under severe conditions."
The wind blew for most of the four days and only the highly skilled and highly determined players would contend. Those conditions would play straight into Nicklaus's hands, but he wasn't surrounded by slouches.
Again Trevino, (suffering with something akin to pneumonia) was nipping at his heels. Arnold Palmer, on the downturn of his legendary career, was putting up one more battle in U.S. Open. The dour but dangerous Bruce Crampton had a toehold on the leaderboard.
Nicklaus had a one-stroke lead over Trevino to start the final round and was paired with him. Nicklaus opened a three-shot lead through the front nine, then the wind got him on the 10th hole, where it tossed his drive off the bluff on the right. He made double bogey. But in these conditions, nobody could get closer to him than a shot and by the time he reached the 17th hole he was three shots ahead. It was blowing a gale at the 17th, so all Nicklaus had to do was avoid disaster.
Instead, he made history.
Smack into the wall of wind he ripped a one-iron of more than 200 yards that struck the green just in front of the pin, hit the stick flush and dropped down a few inches from the cup for a tap-in birdie. With a conservative bogey on the 18th, Jack Nicklaus had won the first Open at Pebble Beach and Pebble Beach had won Jack Nicklaus.
Tom Watson, 1982
A decade later, Watson had overtaken Nicklaus as the dominant player in the game. But Nicklaus was still dangerous. He was up to 13 major championships after wins at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in 1980.
Still Watson had become as much a nemesis for him as Lee Trevino had been a decade earlier. He had beaten Nicklaus twice in 1977, at the Masters and British Open. He had beaten Nicklaus again at the 1981 Masters.
Watson started the final day tied for the lead with Bill Rogers and three shots ahead of Nicklaus. Nicklaus crafted a fine 69 in benign weather and when he signed his card in the scorer's tent he was tied for the lead with Watson, then Watson chipped in on him for the win.
Rogers, Watson's playing partner, said afterward, "You could hit that chip a hundred times and not get it close to the pin, much less in the hole."
"A thousand times," said a stunned Nicklaus.
"I was at the peak of my confidence," said Watson recently. "There wasn't any reason for me to not believe I could make it."
In the end, Nicklaus sat slumped and stunned in the scorer's tent and Watson raced around the 17th green like an unbridled pony. The late, great golf writer Herbert Warren Wind remarked that Watson's chip "was the most sensational shot since World War II."
Tom Kite, 1992
The weather forecast was ominous for the final round, with high winds predicted to pick up by noon and blowing straight into the hopes and dreams of the leaders. On an historic note, Dr. Gil Morgan had become the first player in known Open history to reach double digits under par when he birdied the 3rd, 6th and 7th holes on Friday to move to 12 under par (he would then go nine over par in the next seven holes).
Kite birdied the first hole on Sunday to tie for the lead, but already the wind was starting to gust. Pebble, in its typical Open setup, was hard and fast. Too fast for Nick Faldo's liking. "If they want greens like this, I'm going to take up topless darts," said Faldo. "It would be easier to catch them in your teeth today."
By the time Kite arrived at the fourth hole, it was howling. He made a double bogey on the short par 4, but bounced back with birdie on the par 5 6th. There on the 6th green, on the highest point on the course, Kite's pants were flapping like sails in a squall. It was all he could do to keep his balance, but he rolled in a 20-footer for the birdie.
Now comes the short 7th, a mere pitching wedge down the hill to the most photographed green in golf. Except when the wind is roaring, it's anything but a wedge. Kite chose to punch a 6-iron, but he pulled it slightly and the right-to-left wind carried off the left side of the green into the rough. He thought he had a 50-50 chance of getting up and down for par as he stabbed his wedge at the ball. It came out fast but it was on line and with a clank that could be heard above the wind it hit the flagstick and fell in, a most unlikely birdie.
"I was surprised that it went in, then I said ‘Yeah, Watson did it!' " says Kite. "But this was different. Watson did it on the 17th and I'm on the 7th with more than half the golf course to go, the toughest part of the course, and the wind was really blowing."
At that point, Colin Montgomerie had finished at even par for the championship and was in the ABC television booth along with Nicklaus, who was doing commentary. Nicklaus shook Montgomerie's hand. "Congratulations on winning your first U.S. Open," he said.
This was the ultimate test of Kite's fortitude. He pushed his approach to the 9th just off the edge of the bluff, but was able to get down for a bogey. He parred 10 and 11, then rolled in a 35-footer for birdie on the 12th. Jeff Sluman had just finished at one under par and looked in a fine position to win even though he trailed Kite by four. Kite made bogey at 16 and 17, but still held a two-shot lead. After a perfect drive at 18, he raised his arms. The dreams of his youth were coming true.
"So many times as a kid you sink a putt or hit a shot to win the U.S. Open," says Kite. "Now I was going to do it. I would have taken a U.S. Open anywhere, but to do it at Pebble just made it really special."
Tiger Woods, 2000
During a practice round for the Open, NBC commentator Johnny Miller asked Mark O'Meara, friend and mentor of Tiger Woods, how Woods was playing. O'Meara says "I told him, ‘Johnny I've played the tour for 20 years now and Tiger is the best player I have ever seen. He doesn't have the best record yet, but he's already the greatest player of all time.' "
What O'Meara didn't know was that Woods would have the greatest U.S. Open of all time, the greatest major championship of all time, the greatest single tournament of all time. Other than that he shot four nice rounds.
Woods shot 65 the first round and never looked back. His 69 in the second round was the best round of the day. His 71 in the third round was tied for best round of the day despite a triple bogey on the third hole. His 66 in the final round was a coronation march. He won the championship by an incomprehensible 15 strokes over Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez. His total was 272, 12 strokes under par, the first time a player had ever finished in double digits under par in an Open. If there had been any question (he had won 14 of his last 25 tournaments coming in, so there were few questions) that Woods was in a league of his own, it had been answered by the most dominating display of golf in history.
Two shots Woods hit that week stick out. He had to complete his second round early Saturday morning. On the 18th he hit a huge hook into the Pacific and let out such an explosion of cuss words that it turned the ocean bluer.
He made putt after putt that week, but one on the 16th in the final round had special meaning. He was faced with a 15-footer to save par, and he could have 10-putted it and it would not have made any difference. But he stalked that putt as hard as any that week and when he rolled it in there was an immense look of satisfaction. His goal of winning the Open virtually guaranteed when he teed off the last day, he wanted to play the final round bogey-free.
Els was his playing partner that day. "When he's on, we don't have much of a chance," said Els.
Woods went on to win the British Open, the PGA Championship and the Masters the following April. He had won four majors in a row, and although not in the same year, they became known as the Tiger Slam. He had slammed on the accelerator at Pebble Beach and left the field choking on his fumes.
A series of changes since the 2000 Open, under the auspices of Arnold Palmer's design company, has lengthened the course to 7,040 yards, the first time Pebble Beach will play at longer than 7,000 yards. Four greens were rebuilt and enlarged slightly, 16 bunkers have been rebuilt or added. There are a few new tees and a few new trees. Perhaps most important, fairways along the coastal holes have been shifted closer to the cliffs.
"The length we've added to 9, 10 and 13 probably means maybe a stroke more through those holes," says Harper. "With the fairways shifted toward the coast and with little rough on that side, the players will have to be more conscious of the Pacific Ocean. Those tee shots will be much more demanding.
Despite the changes, the experience hasn't changed and never will. Pebble Beach is as much a journey as it is a golf course. This summer, another player will make the long walk to glory in the most glorious setting in championship golf.
"You always want to go back to Pebble Beach," says Watson, "We all see its beauty, but sometimes lose track of the fact that it is a wonderful course. It's short by today's standards, but when you make those tiny greens hard and fast and get the rough up, and you get some weather, which you usually do, it's as good a test as any. It's a great place to play an Open. It's a great place to play, period."
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.