On the 17th green this morning, leaning on his putter, Tom Watson could sense a great deal of history slipping away. Like last year, he'd needed a semimiracle with his sand wedge to win the U.S. Open; this shot stopped about four feet short of the cup.

Suddenly, the overcast skies brought a ray of hope. From a hole away, perhaps 500 yards as a Titleist flies, came a burst of agony. Watson cocked his ear. Surely, Larry Nelson had made bogey.

He had.

Now Watson need only make par-par to force a playoff, to keep alive his chance of being the first repeat Open champion since Ben Hogan 32 years earlier. Coax in this left-to-right white knuckler, grab a par at 18 and see if Nelson really can keep his putter under control another round.

Who better than Watson to stroke such a putt?

Ben Crenshaw, perhaps. Had Watson somehow been able to contact Crenshaw he would have learned of the demons at Oakmont's 17th hole. They yield lots of birdies; they also take perverse delight in spoiling par at the most important times.

In the near darkness of the second round, the world's greatest putter had lined up the three-footer for par he needed to safely make the cut. And missed.

What happened next will remain the vivid memory of this Open. After tapping in, Gentle Ben grabbed his ball and strode off the green. Trailing smoke, he screamed the naughtiest of obscenities and threw the ball, Dwight Evans-like, far into the practice driving range.

The world's second-best putter lost the Open at 17 today. From the fairway, assuming he needed one birdie to tie Nelson, Watson had tried to hit the perfect nine-iron shot and dumped it into the trap. The night before, Watson figured he could afford one mistake over the last four-plus holes and still win the Open.

He was exactly right.

That missed par putt was the second.

There was a third. From the 18th fairway after a gargantuan drive, Watson mis-hit a six-iron and the ball finally came to rest under a blanket 60-some feet behind the cup.

"It was closer to the hole in the scorer's tent than the hole on the green," he said. "The wrong shot at the wrong time. That hurts."

The chip from hardpan to a green that sloped downhill really was the 1,000-to-1 shot Jack Nicklaus called the wondrous winner at 17 a year ago--multiplied by 100.

No feathery finesse was possible here, the lie being too tight. So swift was the ball rolling that it would have had to hit the flag dead straight to flop in. Any other angle and it still would have run a dozen feet by.

Naturally, Watson holed the 50-foot comebacker.

He gestured: why now? Arms spread, a tight grin on his face, Watson's expression mirrored ours when a bolt of luck strikes one strike too late.

"It's been almost a pleasure," he kidded the crowd during the awards presentation, adding, "I have come close in all three championships here (the others being the '69 U.S. Amateur and the '78 PGA). Maybe I can go one step higher next time."

Watson may have lost, but his reputation hardly was tarnished. That three-under 281 would have won 75 of the previous 82 opens. It also would have gotten him in a playoff four other times.

What he did was fall a shot shy of one of those very good, very obscure players the gods of golf reward for years of grit by allowing to win the Open. Meet the Sam Parks of the '80s, the latest Hubert Green, David and Lou Graham and Andy North.

Most of Nelson's record 132 shots the final two rounds were not struck under Open pressure, for he made the cut by only three strokes. Who's quibbling? He made just one bad swing afer realizing on the 15th tee that he was tied for the lead. Watson made three.

We'll have to dwell awhile on what Nelson did to fully appreciate it. Everybody was prepared for several grand climaxes to the sixth Oakmont Open, but this wasn't one of them. Most players who shoot 65 and leap into contention after three rounds rocket to 83 the fourth.

Don't let this fact escape: Nobody in the history of the Open ever came closer than four shots of what Nelson accomplished the final 36 holes. He's also only the 13th player to win the Open and the PGA.

Although he hinted at some recently discovered allergies acting up shortly before the storm interrupted round began at 10 a.m., Watson had no excuses. He does not especially like Oakmont, but had the chances he needed to win on the final holes.

He had a makeable birdie putt at 16; he had a putt he nearly always makes for par at 17.

Which brings Doug Sanders to mind. In the clubhouse before leaving for his final practice shots, Watson had recalled Sanders' unique touch on the green. With his shoe.

"He could kick the ball into the cup more regularly than some guys could putt it," said Watson, relaxed and laughing. "Once there was about the distance between here and that locker (six feet) to the hole. There were three balls at his feet.

"He swiped two of them dead in the center. He said he'd put the other one in the right lip--and he did." Watson shook his head in astonishment.

Tom, maybe you should have punted at 17.