SAN FRANCISCO, JUNE 21 -- Tom Watson joined Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer today. Much to his dismay. Equals in glory, they're now equals in anguish as well, all heartbreak victims of the Olympic Club and perverse quirks of final-day U.S. Open fortune.

Scott Simpson joined Jack Fleck, Lou Graham and Orville Moody this chilly, thrilling afternoon. "I never thought I was good enough to win the U.S. Open," said Simpson, who calls himself a short-hitting plodder. But Simpson did it -- shooting 68 in the final round and birdieing the 14th, 15th and 16th holes to sweep past Watson with shocking suddenness. Most of all, Simpson did it with a nervy sand shot and eight-foot par putt to hold his lead at the awful 17th, the hillside horror some call golf's worst hole.

After bearing the burden of the lead for three days, the great and resurgent Watson lost this Open by one slim shot in the last hour -- 277 to 278. When his 35-foot birdie putt from the front fringe on the last hole rolled to the lip, an inch or two from glory, Watson knew the same depths of dejection as his predecessors in Opens played on this shadowy course of sighs.

"It happened to Ben Hogan. Jack Fleck birdied two of the last four holes on him {then beat him in a playoff in '55}," said Watson, who shot 70. "I have no reason to feel ashamed. But I sure am disappointed . . . {This proves} there's a lot of golf left in Tom Watson. This renews my resolve about my career. The afterburners are turned on."

Far from feeling ashamed, Watson should have swelled his chest. He flirted with collapse, bogeying three of the first five holes. Even his wife Linda was in tears as she watched. Then, Watson played the final 11 holes with three birdies (at Nos. 8, 9 and 14) and no bogeys. Only one other man in the field played that stretch without a bogey -- yes, Simpson, who birdied four of the last 12 holes.

"If I ever played a round this good, I sure can't remember it now," said Simpson, 31, who has won only three tournaments in nine years on the PGA Tour. "I just kept making all those key putts. It was probably the best putting round of my life."

All day, Watson, in the last group, watched Simpson, just up front in that bright pink sweater, as he walked round and round brutal putts, then drained them. Five times Simpson saved par with putts of 10, eight, three, four and 10 feet. His birdies were no slouches as he found the cup from 30 and 10 feet at Nos. 1 and 7, then sank killers of four, 20 and 15 feet during his winning birdie streak.

Open pressure was on display all day. At one front-nine juncture Watson, Simpson, Larry Mize and Ben Crenshaw were all tied at even par with Bernhard Langer and Seve Ballesteros. All but the two protagonists faded badly. Ballesteros (71) was third at 282, a distant five shots behind Simpson, but one shot ahead of Crenshaw, Langer, Curtis Strange and Bobby Wadkins.

How on earth did Simpson, known through much of his career as a poor stretch-player, survive the back-nine roller coaster ride? He survived by remaining ignorant.

"I never looked at a scoreboard until after 16," Simpson said. "I thought I might have a good lead {by then}. But I saw Tom was still right there {one shot behind}. I knew it would be a fight then. . .

"I resisted {looking} because, in the past, I've looked and invariably it's hurt me more than it's helped me. I got caught up in it and lost sight of what I had to do."

In a curious way, this Open turned into a duel between Watson's self-reliance {"I looked at every scoreboard because I wanted to know where I stood"} and Simpson's fatalistic faith.

"I made a commitment to the Lord that I wasn't going to get angry this week," said Simpson, a born-again Christian who, though expressionless even in victory, has often had lapses into temper on the golf course. "I was real determined to stay cool and do my best."

This Open, which will rank with the best for drama, reached its crucial juncture at the 14th hole. Watson, on the tee, was 1-under-par. Simpson, on the green, was one behind. By the time Watson reached the green, Simpson had made his little four-foot birdie and matters were tied. Nobody else was in sight.

As Watson lined up a 24-foot downhill birdie putt, Simpson struck again. Watson could hear the birdie roar from the 149-yard 15th and knew he was behind. Watson answered like the 31-time champion that he is, trickling his putt into the hole.

Now, it was match play, Simpson steaming briskly ahead, concentration locked in place. As Watson stood 100 yards behind him in the 16th fairway, watching, Simpson faced a 15-foot birdie putt. "You never hope a guy misses a shot," said Watson afterward. Then paused mischievously.

Simpson was in a zone of self-assurance. All his plans, going back more than six months, were working. After three years of trying to become a long hitter like Watson, Simpson finally gave up the struggle as a Christmas present to himself. "It took a while to forget all the stuff that three or four teachers had told me," he said. "I went back to Hogan's fundamentals. I decided to get back to my game whether I hit it short or not."

After making what proved to be his Open-winning putt, Simpson raised one hand a few inches to the crowd, then looked back down the fairway toward Watson and gave a barely perceptable nod, as though saying, "Matched me once. Now match me twice."

Watson couldn't. All he had left was pars. Still, the horrific 17th awaited Simpson. Like so many others this week, he hit an excellent drive, only to see it kicked right by the slick fairway, into nasty side-hill rough. Simpson's 4-iron shot found the left front bunker and his explosion curved six feet past the hole. After dozens of practice putts as partner Lennie Clements finished the hole, Simpson ran yet another cold-blooded putt into the center of the cup.

And this one was made when he knew the score.

Simpson's play at the 18th hole epitomized why he won this Open. Two-iron shot in the middle of the fairway. Eight-iron shot in the middle of the green. Commercial putt one foot below the hole. Tap in. Collect $150,000. Go from No. 9 on the money list to No. 1 with $465,896 -- high rolling for a man who's never finished higher than 22nd.

On Tuesday, Jack Nicklaus (77) said that Olympic would "reward the golfer who's very straight, very simple, does not try to be a hero, uses his head and plods along . . . like Hogan."

"That's me," said Simpson cheerfully afterward.

Because of his complete self-effacement on the course and his ultra-cautious playing style, Simpson has always been exhibit A for critics of colorless pro golfers. That has bothered him little, if at all. He freely acknowledges that fans confuse him with Tim Simpson, who looks nothing like him. "I've gotten a lot of 'Go Tim's' in the past," said Simpson. "He'll probably get a lot of 'Go Scott's' now."

Long after Watson's last-gasp putt died left of the 18th hole -- "Yeah, I had a good idea it was going in the hole" -- Simpson was still trying to grasp capturing an event that, as a child, he says he was never bold enough to think about winning, even in fantasy. "It's going to take a long time for this to sink in," said Simpson.

When Hogan and Palmer had their hearts hurt here, they never recovered. Neither won a major title afterward. For Watson, the addendum to this day may be happier. He never lost this Open. Someone took it from him.

For many of the 26,800 here, that will only be partial compensation. It is Simpson's bad luck that, marvelously as he played, he will be part of Olympic's continuing tradition of unwritten heroic headlines. 1955: "Hogan Wins Record Fifth Open." 1966: "Palmer Breaks Hogan's Open Scoring Record." 1987: "Watson Completes Comeback With Open Triumph." Chuck 'em all in the circular file. Right next to "Dewey Wins."