“I was being interviewed by Jack Whitaker on the 18th green,” Nicklaus said of the 1982 U.S. Open. “He was congratulating me on winning my fifth Open and saying how great it was to have been covering golf in your time.”
Nicklaus didn’t win the Open that year. Watson did, thanks to a 16-foot chip-in out of the heavy rough on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links, which will host the tournament this week for the first time in a decade.
“All of a sudden -- he had just finished saying ‘your time’ and then,” Nicklaus recalled, pausing to imitate the crowd’s noise. “I looked behind me on the monitor and there’s Watson running around the green.”
The video of a smiling, gap-toothed Watson skipping with his club raised in the air has become one of golf’s most iconic images. Watson went on to birdie the final hole to defeat Nicklaus by two strokes on a course that he said has “always taken a toll” on him.
Following a runner-up finish to Stewart Cink in last year’s British Open, the 60-year-old Watson said he’s returning to Pebble Beach this week with thoughts of recapturing the form that won him his only U.S. Open title.
“If I’m playing well, I think I will have some success,” Watson said in a telephone interview. “And I put ‘if’ in front of that because I’m playing half-decently right now and it’s still too early to say how I will feel when I tee it up on Thursday.”
In a sport that has been dominated by Tiger Woods’s off- course personal issues and on-course struggles, Watson has remained a counterpoint over the past year. Proving that his play at Scotland’s Turnberry 11 months ago was not a fluke, Watson opened the Masters Tournament in April with a 5-under-par 67 and finished 18th.
If Watson can find a way to sink enough putts this week, seeing his name near the top of the leaderboard would not be surprising, said U.S. PGA Tour player Brandt Snedeker, a long- time Watson admirer who often plays practice rounds alongside his boyhood idol.
“When he’s putting well, he contends,” Snedeker said in an interview on the Pebble Beach practice range. “That’s why he did so well at the British Open. The guy just seems to be getting better with age.”
On the over-50 Champions Tour this year, Watson won the season-opening event in Hawaii for his 13th senior title to go along with 39 career PGA Tour victories.
While many older players don’t hit their tee shots far enough to contend with the longer course layouts found on the PGA Tour, Pebble Beach’s dry fairways this week could be beneficial for Watson.
“It’s playing very firm and fast, so length is not going to be as much of an issue,” Snedeker said. “He hits a very flat, boring kind of drive that will run a long way. And with his course knowledge and the way he still strikes the golf ball to this day, he can still contend.”
Still, even players of Watson’s caliber often find Pebble Beach a difficult course to have success on. The Missouri native says he has only mastered the 91-year-old layout one time -- the first time he played it as a pro. He shot 71 that day, with 17 pars and a birdie on the final hole.
“The golf course has always taken its toll on me,” he said. “No matter how well I’ve played, I’ve always made some mistakes out there.”
As he prepares to begin his latest round at the course on June 17, that very first outing remains clear.
“For me, it’s a question of ‘can I do that?’ Can I have another experience like my very first round there,” he said. “Can I do that consistently over four rounds? That’s what I’m looking for.”