The 82nd U.S. Open, which ended here Sunday night with Tom Watson jubilantly heaving his golf ball into the Pacific Ocean, demonstrated everything that is right about golf.
For several years, since Jack Nicklaus stopped carrying the sport on his back, critics have nagged about the ills of pro golf--its slow pace, its lack of dynamic stars, its absence of controversy or cheap thrills, its paucity of drama.
What's wrong with golf?
Today, as the final day of this Open shines fresh in memory, it's only fair to say that the answer seems to be, "Not much."
What Watson and Nicklaus did for their game here may be far-reaching, much as the sixth game of the 1975 World Series seemed to shift a nation's whole view of baseball. From time to time, it is necessary for a sport to rise up and show itself at its absolute best--otherwise, we begin to forget what attracted us to it in the first place.
That's what Watson and Nicklaus accomplished at Pebble Beach.
First, they were virtuosos. Few players have ever performed better from tee to green than Nicklaus did for four days. For his part, Watson scrambled and battled and performed acts of prestidigitation around the greens with an elan for which he is seldom credited. Watson's true bloodlines probably run back to Arnold Palmer--the long drives, the constant battle against a hook, the miracle recoveries, the steady diet of irrationally long putts.
Second, they were eminent champions in their ability to play their best under the greatest pressure--just as everyone else around them was collapsing under the same conditions.
While excellent and proven players like Bill Rogers and David Graham were clutching the rope until their palms bled, then, finally, losing their grip and falling out of sight, Watson and Nicklaus kept clambering up, hand over hand.
Just when Nicklaus seemed dead, five shots behind, he immediately made five birdies in a row--equaling what had been the Open record until this week--to get to the lead.
And, as hardly needs to be said, Watson's Open-winning, called-shot chip-in from the rough at the infamous 17th was the stuff of instant legend. Until an earthquake cracks California off the map and into the Pacific, every duffer who plays the public links of Pebble Beach will sneak into the fringe at 17 to speculate about The Shot. And try to duplicate it.
In fact, the other glorious shots of golf history--from Gene Sarazen's double eagle at the Masters in '35 right through Nicklaus's one-iron off the pole on the very same hole to clinch the '72 Open--may soon discover that, for overall impact, they have to measure themselves against Watson's Wedge, rather than the other way 'round.
Watson immediately had the apt sense of history to call it "the best shot of my life." And Nicklaus had the customary good grace to treat the miracle with proper disbelief and bemused awe: "I saw Tom jumpin' around. I thought, well, it lipped out. I mean I can't believe anybody could have holed it from there . . . (pause) . . . That's really the truth."
As though all this weren't enough good to come from one day's work, golf got a bonus. Each of these seminal figures redefined his place in the game.
Nicklaus proved, to those who may not have been paying attention, that he has a better fundamental swing, and a more complete golf game now, after the age of 40, than he ever did as a prodigiously strong youth.
"I do enjoy these confrontations," said Nicklaus in defeat, after Watson's birdies on the 71st and 72nd holes had snapped a tie and prevented him from becoming the first man to win five Open titles. "I like to think that I can work at it hard enough over the next few years to have a few more."
Since spring of '80, Nicklaus has been talking about his reborn interest in, and devotion to, his game. Hopefully, now all disbelievers have been removed. It now seems probable that Nicklaus will be a central factor--a great player fully capable of winning--in every major championship for the next couple of years. Maybe longer.
If Nicklaus was the perfect portrait of a legendary athlete aging with more grace and bearing than seems possible, then Watson finally reached full maturity this week. Watson is now the full-fledged king of golf.
That, of course, is different from merely being the best golfer in the world. Watson has held that distinction, beyong argument, for the past five years. But he never quite had his crown. Despite his three British Open and two Masters titles, despite his 27 PGA tournament wins and his four straight seasons as player of the year, Watson still had not won the greatest event in his sport--the U.S. Open.
Now, the comparisons between Watson and the big names will begin. And Watson, with his six majors at the age of 32, won't fare badly at all. For contemporary comparison, Gary Player has won nine majors, Palmer eight and Trevino five. Lest anyone forget, Nicklaus has not only won 19 majors but has been runner-up in the majors 18 times.
More than virtuosity, more than clutch performance, more than inherent drama, more than the splendor of Pebble Beach in a full foggy funk, this Open isolated the quality that separates, and perhaps distinguishes, golf from all other sports.
Golf allows its champions to develop a genuine dignity. They play completely alone; more free of owners, managers and teammates than even professional boxers. They are individuals who must face a three-part task: their game is man against nature, man against man and, finally, man against himself.
Because of their solitude--each reaches moments like Watson's at the 17th when he is framed by nothing but sky and history--great golfers seldom find it possible to hide their bedrock character, even if they would prefer it.
The U.S. Open cannot offer the sight of a man being beaten senseless, as a heavyweight fight in Las Vegas may. Nor can it claim the spectacle of a human body being fragmented and incinerated at 200 miles per hour, as Indianapolis provided again this year.
What golf offers is the sight of Watson, in his hour of vindication, showing no rancor toward anyone, no envy for Nicklaus.
"This makes me feel that my career is one plateau higher . . . I don't think you could have a better scenario than Pebble Beach and Jack Nicklaus, the greatest golfer of all time," said Watson with the good grace typical of his game.
Finally, golf, at its best, gives us a subdued and beaten, but thoroughly proud Nicklaus saying, "When you get this close to winning, when you think you really have probably won, it's pretty disappointing when it's over and you've lost. I played about as well as I could have. I played a good championship, one that was certainly good enough to win, except for one fellow."
Was there any one shot that he wished he could have played differently, Nicklaus was asked?
"Watson's at the 17th," he said.