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Chip shot heard ’round world signals new Watson era

DATE OF EVENT: Sunday, June 20, 1982

DATE PUBLISHED: Monday, June 21, 1982, in The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: Tom Watson, Kansas City’s champion golfer, won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Calif., with what is arguably the most famous shot in major golf championship history. Watson was head-to-head with reigning champion Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus had completed his round when Watson arrived at the par-3 17th. Watson hit a 2-iron off the tee and failed to make the green. Then he sank an improbable downhill chip shot. The birdie gave Watson a 1-stroke advantage. He topped it off with a birdie at No. 18, defeating Nicklaus by 2 strokes.

It was Watson’s first, and only, U.S. Open title on the regular tour. The Kansas City Star used a Washington Post story for its main coverage of the event, but sports columnist Joe McGuff followed up with this commentary.

Chip shot heard ’round world signals new Watson era

Open triumph gets golfer over hump; sky seems the limit

By Joe McGuff

Whenever people gather to talk about great moments in sports, they will speak of Tom Watson’s chip shot on the 17th at Pebble Beach with awe and that almost eerie sort of total recall that is reserved for only a few extraordinary emotional experiences.

In the total context of American sports, it will be equated with Bobby Thomson’s home run that won the 1951 playoff game between the Giants and Dodgers and the final pitch of Don Larsen’s perfect World Series game. Because so many millions were watching on television, it is likely to become the most celebrated shot in the history of golf.

As the ball rose on a low arc from the deep rough beside the green, landed just beyond the fringe and rolled in, two thoughts surged through the mind. The first was that Watson had made a virtually impossible short. The second was that he had won the Open, the prize that had eluded him for so long and was threatening to be come some sort of grotesque asterisk affixed to his career. Only later did all the implications of this shot begin to take some kind of order.

By finally winning the Open, Watson has begun a new phase of his career. He is widely acknowledged as the best player in golf, but Nicklaus has won 17 major championships since turning pro and this record was thought to be untouchable. The Open was Watson’s sixth major victory as a pro. Watson is 32 and if he elects to play into his mid-40s he might possibly challenge that record.

He has surpassed Lee Trevino and his mentor, Byron Nelson, in major titles and needs only one ore major to tie Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead. Even if he is unable to overtake Nicklaus, it is likely that he will move ahead of Ben Hogan and Gary Player, who have nine majors apiece.

He needs only to win the PGA championship to become the fourth player in history to win all four majors. …

To put Watson’s situation in perspective, it should be noted that Hogan had just turned 34 when he won his first major championship.

Another significant aspect of Watson’s victory in terms of his overall position in golf is the fact that he has defeated Nicklaus the three times that both of them have been the leading contenders for major championships.

Watson’s first victory over Nicklaus came in the 1977 Masters at a time when many good fans were saying that Waston was a good player, but he choked in the big ones. …

The second meeting between Watson and Nicklaus took place in the 1977 British Open when Watson defeated him in what might be the greatest head-to-head duel in the history of golf…

The two had not met again in this type of situation until Sunday when they found themselves tied for the lead at 4-under after Nicklaus had completed the 15th hole and Watson the 13th.

They were still tied after Nicklaus completed his round and Waston went to the 17th tee, where he hit a 2-iron into the rough at the end of the green and put himself in a position where in all probability he was going to win or lose the Open with one shot. Had he pitched the ball past the hole, he would have had a long putt coming back and his chances of making it would have been poor.

It is for a few exquisite moments such as this that the public spends thousands of hours watching sports. …

Watson has all of the qualities that Americans admire in their sports heroes. He is committed to hard work, integrity and loyalty to his family and friends. He is, by nature, reserved and it has been said that he needs some of the qualities of a Palmer or a Trevino.

The truth is that the public has embraced everyone form loners to saloon brawlers as its heroes. What the public really hungers for is a superman who unerringly hits the home run, throws the touchdown pass or sinks the long putt in the decisive moment of a great athletic event.

Sunday the public discovered a new superman, one with red hair and a gap in his front teeth.