• May 11, 2010

My First National Open

My First National Open

My First National Open 150 150 Tom Watson

The United States Open Championship, or what my father called the National Open, is being played at Pebble Beach this year for the fifth time in its history.  It’s the tournament I have always wanted to win most, as I grew up listening to my father’s many stories about our Open champions: Francis Ouimet, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, and always about Sam Snead (my father’s golfing idol) who never managed to win it.  Dad could name every winner from 1895 on until the day he passed, even after his stroke.  He always considered it the toughest tournament to win, therefore the most worthy victory of all the majors…and so did I…still do.

I often get asked about my victory there in 1982 with a lucky chip-in on the 71st hole to win over Jack Nicklaus, but this story is not about that.  This story is about the very first National Open in which I competed, in 1972, my first year as a pro…and at Pebble Beach.

The Monterey, California, community is known for Pebble Beach but also has a rich fabric of other wonderful places one should visit: not the least of which is 17 Mile Drive, a meandering road taking you in and out of the Monterey pines along the rugged Pacific coastline.  A visit to John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, the wharf, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium should all be on the list. The Monterey Jazz Festival highlights the music scene, and a visit to my brother’s Joullian Vineyards wine shop in Carmel Valley is an enologist’s delight (just a little plug here, Ridge.)

But Pebble Beach is the main attraction to the area, with its one of a kind golf course.  Arguably the three finest par 4s in-a-row in the world were designed there (8, 9, and 10), and they are bordered on the right by the Pacific Ocean & Carmel Beach, with most of the design credit obviously going to the Almighty.

In 1972, Pebble Beach had its first chance to prove itself against the very best golfers in the world in our Open. Playing a practice round on Tuesday, we players saw a foreshadowing of what was about to occur.  The poa annua greens were as hard as California Highway 1 and were already turning from blue to black, dying out from the excessive play and lack of moisture.  By the time Thursday’s first round began, we knew we were in for an extreme test even if the winds were reasonable.

I made the 36 hole cut but played a poor third round.  I ended toward the back of the pack, led by none other than the greatest player in the game, Jack Nicklaus.  I shot 76 in the final round in a really hard, blustery west wind and then went back to the hotel to watch the remainder of the Open on TV.  (I passed more than 30 players shooting 76 to give one an indication of how hard the course was playing on Sunday.)

When people think of Jack’s victory in the ‘72 Open, they always point to the magnificent one iron he hit to the 71st hole, which hit the flagstick and ended up inches from the cup.  That gave him the cushion to play the famed 18th, along Stilwater Cove, without the pressure of having to make par to win.

The shot I think was the most crucial in his win was not this one iron, but a shot Jack hit on the 205-yard 12th, the third of the great set of par threes at Pebble.  Into the gusty west wind, Jack launched his famous skyball long iron to the small green.  It was lofted as high as he could hit it, but when it came down it hit the concrete green, bounced twice and went well over the green leaving him a nasty downhill, downwind chipshot.  He left his chip short still in the gnarly high rough.  Then followed the shot of the round. With double bogey and the loss of his lead staring him in the face, Jack hit a touchy chip to 3 feet and made the putt for bogey.  This chip shot in my opinion was Jack’s most crucial final round shot, as he maintained his momentum for the final stretch of holes.

Strange how sometimes the most famous shots are not necessarily the most important!  Jack won his third Open, but when all was said and done Pebble had won the war with only 10 players able to break 300!!

This year’s National Open at Pebble may be my last.  It may bare its teeth…I hope it does.  It did in ’72 and again in ‘92 in the final round – when Tom Kite rode and fought its ocean gales to victory.  I hope I can make a good showing and play to my potential.  Who knows?  I may even have a chance to win….

If I don’t do well I will still always treasure my National Open victory at Pebble Beach, not so much for myself, but for my father and the happiest Father’s Day a son could ever give a dad.

Blow wind, blow….

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