July 16, 2009


A Braw Brawl For Tom And Jack:
It was the best two rounds of golf ever played, Watson and Nicklaus battling head to head in the British Open until youth overtook age on the next to last hole (Dan Jenkins, July 18, 1977, Sports Illustrated)

Go ahead and mark it as the end of an era in professional golf if you're absolutely sure that Jack Nicklaus has been yipped into the sunset years of his career by the steel and nerve and immense talent of Tom Watson.

You could argue that way now, in these hours after Tom Watson has become the new king of the sport in a kingly land; when Watson has already become the Player of the Year, not to mention the future; when he has done it in the most memorable way in the annals of golf; and when he has done it for the second time in this season to the greatest player who ever wore a slipover shirt—Jack Nicklaus.

You could also say it very simply with numbers. In the last two rounds of last week's British Open, Tom Watson shot 65 and 65 to beat Nicklaus by one stroke. Oh, by the way, they were playing together. Oh, yes, and another thing: Watson's 72-hole total was 268, which was a new record by only eight shots. And, incidentally, the victory gave Watson his second major title of the year (and the third of his fresh and exciting career); he had taken the Masters, of course, standing up to Nicklaus in a slightly different pressurized situation. And, let's see, the British Open gave Watson his sixth win of the year and some $300,000 in Tour earnings.

But all of that doesn't even begin to examine what the stakes were on the gorgeous links of Turnberry on Scotland's west coast in the most atmospheric, ancient and, some would argue, most treasured of golf's four major tournaments. Actually, what took place was the most colossal head-to-head shotmaking and low scoring in the history of golf.

Watson and Nicklaus started to lap the field on Friday, when their identical rounds of 68-70-65 had given them a three-stroke bulge on the nearest pursuers. But just when everyone was ready to concede that Friday's duel had outspectaculared anything ever witnessed from the days of the gutta-percha ball to those of the Apex shaft, Tom and Jack went out and did it all over again in Saturday's final round, spinning out the unbelievable drama and suspense to the very last delicate rap of Watson's putter on a two-foot birdie putt, which gave him a second consecutive 65 to Nicklaus's shabby, horrid and humiliating 66.

On each of the last two days, Watson came back from what looked to be certain doom to catch Nicklaus and finally do him in. Watson just would not go away, not in the face of Nicklaus's birdies, or his icy stare or his mighty reputation. When Watson was two behind in the third round, he fought back to tie Jack, and in so doing broke the Nicklaus rhythm and the tempo of his short putts. On Saturday, Watson came back again twice, once from three strokes down to tie, and again from two back, finishing the round with four blazing birdies over the last six holes.

Watson was two shots behind the premier player of the game with those six holes left. Who can give Nicklaus two shots over six holes and beat him by one? Who could even contemplate it? Only Tom Watson in this day and time, a Tom Watson who has the best complete game in golf and has been proving it all year. A Tom Watson who has the most reliable, solid swing around, who has the well-educated patience to hold himself in control, the strength and vigor of youth, and now the confidence and determination to make himself worthy of the No. 1 role he has seized.

Here's how it was at the most torturous time of all, out there at the par-3 15th hole in the last round after Watson had just stabbed Nicklaus through the front of his yellow sweater with a 60-foot birdie putt from the hardpan 10 feet off the green. That astonishing shot hit the flagstick and dived into the cup and brought Watson into a tie once more.

They went to the 16th tee, and Jack and Tom looked at each other. The blond and the redhead. Yesterday and today. Then and now. Dominguín and Ordóñez.

And Tom smiled at Jack. "This is what it's all about, isn't it?"

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 16, 2009 4:21 PM
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