Annie Mebane drove a courtesy car that carried golfers around Greensboro, N.C., this spring. She's 22. One day her passenger was Bobby Clampett. He's 22. Late this evening, with the sun falling over the Isle of Arran, Annie and Bobby sat on a little bank of earth behind the 18th green at Troon Golf Club.
They shared disappointment. Tom Watson took congratulations a dozen yards away. He had won the British Open for the fourth time. Last month he won the U.S. Open. This is the Tom Watson once thought of as a loser. He choked away important victories . He shot 79 the last day to lose the 1974 U.S. Open and had 36-hole scores of 135 and 155 to lose the '75 U.S. Open.
He knew how Clampett felt today. Taking the big silver cup of the champion, taking the applause from maybe 30,000 people, Watson gave the kid something.
"Bobby Clampett is a gutsy player, a very dedicated player," Watson said to the crowd on a public address system. "He'll win this championship someday, and he'll win more major championships."
With less than half this British Open to go, Clampett had a seven-stroke lead. He was 12 under par. In barely two full seasons on tour, Clampett had won $300,000. His promise was undoubted, but by finishing second four times he had earned dubious recognition as the best player who hadn't won.
The first professional tournament Jack Nicklaus won was the U.S. Open, and here Clampett seemed certain to make his first one for the history books. But now he had lost. Now in the evening sun, with shadows across the 18th green, Clampett sat with his girlfriend.
The ceremonies were over. People held programs down for Clampett to sign, and he signed them without looking up, and then he and Annie walked on a gravel pathway toward the clubhouse. They held hands. The only sound was of golf cleats scraping across little rocks. It had been painful to see.
Clampett is a wonderful player. He knows it. The ruthlessness, the selfishness, the fires of anger that burn in any competitor are disguised by Clampett, who hides them behind a gentleman's manner and high-technology talk about the golf swing.
It's me-against-me, Clampett said. A personal challenge, he said. Well, it isn't that at all. By saying it is, Clampett avoids the truth of competition, which is that championships are won not by pretty swings but by the man whose will moves the ball into the hole, whether he uses a shovel, a rake or a Dr. Pepper bottle taped up.
Watson once hid his melancholy behind public talk of swing planes gone awry. With his wife, he wept.
It had been painful, Clampett's fall from grace. The first 41 holes, he made only four bogeys. The last 31 holes, he made a triple bogey and 13 bogeys. After 16 birdies, he made three more.
Someone wrote that the only way he could lose this British Open after his 67-66 start was to break both legs getting into his plus-twos. Worse than that, he broke his heart.
Off the gravel pathway now, Clampett left Mebane, saying, "I'm going to clean out my locker. I'll meet you out in front."
A man with a whiskey glass called out as Clampett entered the clubhouse, "Bobby, come here and have a drink." Another voice: "very unlucky."
Clampett walked through two crowded rooms. The people knew him well now, this curly-haired kid in the plus-twos. They looked at him and then moved their eyes away.
That morning, Clampett's mother, Jacqueline, said, "Robert has always been a perfectionist. Sometimes he would come home from school and be so proud because he got Bs, and I knew he could do better. I would say, 'Robert, that's fine, but what's wrong with As?' "
His father died after a long illness when Clampett was 12. A year before, his mother gave him a series of golf lessons for Christmas, and by Easter he was in tournaments. She wore out a car, she said, putting 180,000 miles on it carrying her son to tournaments up and down California.
When someone asked Clampett's mother if her son thought of himself as a Jack Nicklaus type, winning major championships, she touched her lips and said, "Uh-huh." A long pause, before: "Robert one day said his goal is to be the best player in the world."
Watson botched the U.S. Open in 1975 by shooting 67-68-78-77. Clampett botched this British Open on 67-66-78-77. Any who dare to be the best dare to fail grandly.
"I had a manufactured swing then," Watson said of those long ago days, "and it didn't work when the heat was on, like Bobby Clampett today and yesterday."
First comes the swing, and then comes the will to make it work when it must.
Clampett moved through the clubhouse as in a daze, taking a zigzag line to get by people, stopping only at the dressing room mail table. He picked up a dozen telegrams. A newspaperman said it was nice what Watson said out there, that Watson had been through the same tough time.
Clampett shuffled the telegrams. "Not much fun at all," he said. He sat in front of his locker, which his caddy had already cleaned out.
After the fifth hole of the third round, when he had the seven-shot lead, Clampett said he thought, "All you gotta do is keep it up, you can blow it out of everybody's reach. It's not a matter of choking, it just went."
Tears were in his eyes. "I might find it next week and win. This one's gone." Then he said, "I'm sorry," rose and went to a courtesy car where his mother and girlfriend were waiting.
In the press tent, someone said to Watson, "You've been there, you've shot 155 to lose the U.S. Open, and now you've risen to this station. What advice would you give Bobby Clampett right now?"
Watson said, "Win next week."