Larry Nelson had never met a long putt he didn't hate. Now, he'll love one forever.
Tom Watson had never seen a short putt for par he didn't love. Now, he'll hate one forever.
Because Nelson sank a 62-foot man-eater of a birdie putt on the 16th hole at Oakmont Country Club this morning, he is the champion of the U.S. Open golf championship by a single stroke while Watson is a bedazzled bridesmaid.
Because Watson missed a four-foot putt for par on the 17th hole, he failed to force a playoff with Nelson and thus lost his chance to become the first golfer since Ben Hogan to win back-to-back Opens.
For a man like Nelson, who has "tried 499 different putting strokes" in the last tormenting year, to sink a three-tiered downhill putt to win the Open is the sort of perversity that must please the sick deities of golf. Or perhaps it's the kind of justice that befits Nelson's perseverance.
For Watson, golf's master of the greens, to miss the sort of willpower putt on which his reputation is built, is perhaps irony of the opposite kind.
In its long history, since 1895, the U.S. Open has never seen a day like this one, nor a closing performance like Nelson's, whose 65-67--132 the final 36 holes smashed an Open record by four strokes.
Never before had the last round of an Open been aborted by rain as Sunday's was, so no Open ever had a duplicate of this morning's bizarre sight when a crowd a fraction the size of Sunday's came to see six golfers end their work.
Nelson, who began the day in a tie with Watson at four under par, completed his round with his historic birdie at the 228-yard 16th, a routine par at the 17th and a nervous three-putt bogey from 40 feet at the 18th for a closing 67--280.
Watson, returning to his ball mark on the 14th green, ended his round of 69 with routine pars at 14, 15 and 16, a killing bogey despite a great recovery from bunkering his second shot at the easy 322-yard 17th, and a par at the 18th for 281.
Watson's last chance died on the par-4 18th when, after a 310-yard drive, his six-iron approach flew over the green into the crowd. Watson was left with an almost impossible 60-foot downhill pitch; in fact, he made a 50-foot putt coming back to finish with a rousing par.
"Fore!" screamed dozens of voices as Watson's shot whizzed within six feet of the scorer's tent behind the 18th green. Inside, Nelson ducked for safety like everyone else. By the time he lifted his head and realized Watson's ball was in jail, Nelson knew he was the winner of this 83rd Open.
Late Friday night, when Nelson was part of a 10-way tie for 25th place after rounds of 75 and 73, no one--not even Nelson--could have guessed that he was about to unleash the greatest final 36 holes in the history of the Open.
From the fifth hole Saturday through the 16th hole today, Nelson had 14 birdies (against four bogeys) in 30 holes on a famous and brutal course that many pros here have called the most difficult and unforgiving they have ever seen.
So stern was Oakmont that only three players finished under par of 284: Nelson, Watson and Gil Morgan (68--283). In fact, only four other players broke 290: Calvin Peete (73) and Seve Ballesteros (74) at 286, Hal Sutton at 287 and Lanny Wadkins at 288. In all, only six players finished within 11 strokes of Nelson.
For Watson, this was the second time in five years that Oakmont's harsh back nine had cost him a major championship. In the '78 PGA, he led by five with nine to play and lost in a playoff; this time, he led by three with nine to go.
"I wouldn't call it a jinx," said Watson. "But you can."
For Nelson, 35, this victory was so shocking, so unexpected, that he repeatedly said, "I feel numb." He had not won a tournament since the 1981 PGA. After reaching the upper echelon of the PGA Tour by finishing second, 11th, 10th and 21st on the money list from '79 through '82, Nelson had plummeted this season to 92nd. But the $72,000 he won here will improve that.
To be sure, the 5-foot-9 Nelson had a tidy, rhythmic swing reminiscent of Gene Littler. Nobody hits a crisper iron, and, according to the PGA Tour's stats, no one on earth combined good distance and great accuracy off the tee as well as Nelson. But those stats also said that Nelson ranked 158th in putting.
That's why Nelson's experience at the 16th today will become a part of golf legend. Watson's bogey at the 17th will be forgiven and forgotten; after all, he was gambling--shooting at a tough pin placement--only because Nelson's birdie had put him a stroke behind. Nelson's shaky putting at the 18th will recede with time, too. Those three ugly stabs could have cost him an Open, but since they didn't, only his exploits at the 16th green will grow with time.
At 9:59 a.m., the 16th tee at Oakmont was inhabited by no more than two dozen people. Perhaps 200 more ringed the green. Most of what crowd there was had perched at the 14th green, figuring Watson was the man to watch. The air was stagnant, muggy, the sky oppressive, full of rain.
No one spoke, or even walked heavily. Nelson stood at the very end of the tee, his thin lips drawn to their narrowest line, as he waited for the starting siren to sound.
Finally, he pulled out the four-wood that he'd given double duty during his warmups. He wanted to cut it in, left to right toward the flag tucked behind the right-side traps. What he didn't want to do was hit the ball so solidly that it would draw to the extreme left side of the green where he would face as difficult a putt as Oakmont has to offer.
But that's just what Nelson did.
If ever a golfer faced a forbidding putt, it was Nelson. "I had the same putt in an earlier round and I knocked it 15 feet past," he said. The hideous thing had to trickle down two tiers while breaking four feet left to right. Making matters worse, Nelson hadn't hit a putt on the rain-soaked greens.
Nelson addressed the ball, then pretended that a fly had landed on his ball. He waved the nonexistent creature away as he steadied his nerves. The second time, he struck the ball.
Perhaps someday Nelson will tell somebody the truth. Afterward, he swore he thought it was a good putt all the way. At that crisis moment, however, Nelson sure acted like a guy who thought he'd hit a timid stroke that would leave the ball a dozen feet short of the hole and on the wrong tier.
Slowly, Nelson walked forward, hoping the ball would inch over the last ledge and plunge the final 10 feet toward the hole. When the ball finally made it over that crest, Nelson started running toward the hole. Not walking fast, but running. He knew it was dead on line if it got there.
"I couldn't just stand there and wait," he said.
In New York, an ABC Sports spokesman issued the following statement why the network was unable to televise the conclusion of the tournament live:
"We had scheduled air time at 4 p.m. for months in case of a playoff or rain. The USGA wanted to go early and we had air time committed until 4 p.m., so there was no chance to go live. Therefore, the decision was made to go on tape. We could not make any changes in the scheduled programming."