Watson merits an encore at Pebble Beach

Tom Watson hugs caddie Bruce Edwards after winning the 1982 U.S. Open.

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Tom Watson’s eyes were glued to the screen. It was 1982 again. The image: a younger version of himself, a frown of concentration on his face, stalking the 17th green at Pebble Beach Golf Club. With the audio muted, there was an uncomfortable silence in the room at Pebble’s Beach Club, which just so happens to overlook that very green.

On Jan. 25, more than 200 attendees of the USGA Member Program stopped their kibitzing and watched as Watson slipped the leading edge of his sand wedge underneath the ball and puffed it barely onto the putting surface.

What happened next hardly needs an introduction. A huge roar shook the room when Watson holed the shot and danced around the 17th green. It was an instant classic before ESPN coined the phrase, a shot that golf writer Dan Jenkins wrote would be remembered “for as long as men sew leather patches on the elbows of their tweed jackets.’’

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Tom Watson chips in for birdie on No. 17 at Pebble Beach en route to winning the 1982 U.S. Open.

Watson leaned back in his chair and flashed the same gap-toothed smile. As the applause died down, an older, wiser Watson cupped a hand over his mouth and shouted, “Lucky,” loud enough for everyone to hear. The room exploded in laughter.

Here’s something that is no laughing matter: as of now, Watson isn’t eligible for the U.S. Open when it returns to Pebble this June. Will the USGA grant Watson, 60, a special exemption so he can make memories at Pebble one final time? I sure hope so. It’s hard to believe he’s not already eligible. Runner-up of the U.S. Amateur earns an automatic berth into the field, but not the runner-up of the British Open? Something doesn’t smell right.

Decisions regarding special exemptions generally are made around the time of the Masters, according to USGA spokesperson Rand Jerris. Some insiders tell me it’s a done deal and the USGA just waited for the end of Jim Vernon’s reign as president to avoid any implication of favoritism, because Vernon and Watson are old fraternity brothers.

Some might argue that Watson has been given enough handouts: four times (1993, 1996, 2000 and 2003) previously he has benefited from a special exemption into the U.S. Open field. Some might say he’s taking a spot from a more deserving player who qualifies in golf’s most democratic tournament, that golf has enough sentimental walks down memory lane.

Watson’s walk wouldn’t qualify as such. He could still compete. He could still win. He had a top-10 finish at the Dubai Desert Classic a few weeks ago. In case anyone already has forgotten about Watson’s performance at last year’s British Open, let’s continue to take a trip back in time. During that recent evening at Pebble, Watson spoke of Turnberry with inimitable brio.

“That was a magical night,” said R.J. Harper, a senior vice president of Pebble Beach Co., who sat at Watson’s table. “I’ve been here for 25 years and I’ve gone to a lot of events here, and that was probably the most memorable evening that I’ve ever spent here.”

Watson’s mood was buoyant. After all, he had just outdueled Fred Couples the night before to win the Champions Tour season debut in Hawaii.

Soon Watson and Johnny Miller participated in a question-and-answer session with the audience. Hands shot up. The first question was posed: “Hey, Johnny, why don’t you ask Tom the question you told us this morning you’re too afraid to ask him?”

How’s that for chutzpah!

Watson took the bait. He turned to Miller and asked, “OK, what is it?”

During an earlier session before Watson’s arrival, Miller had been asked what he thought was going through Watson’s mind at Turnberry on the final holes of last summer’s British Open.

“I told them I wasn’t there,” Miller said. “So tell me, what was going on?”

Watson began with a drawn out, “Well . . . .”

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With President Gerald Ford to his right and USGA president Bill Campbell to his left, Tom Watson lifts the U.S. Open trophy.

If you expected him to sputter through some kind of sugarcoated answer, you’d be wrong. Watson recounted his entire week in detail to a spellbound audience – how he thought he had home-field advantage from playing so many tournaments at Turnberry, to the way the sun set on Wednesday evening and how spiritual it seemed. Round by round, shot by shot, how much the loss stung and how he made peace with defeat, his thoughts and memories poured out with gusto.

Watson can be shy and circumspect and guarded with those whom he doesn’t know well. Yet on this occasion, words seemingly reserved for a select few were shared with a room of 200 strangers.

When he arrived at his approach shot to the 72nd hole, Watson said he still thought he picked the right club. He hit his 8-iron shot flush. Andy North, commentating for ABC, stood by the green and told Watson afterward how his ball just happened to land on a little knob in front of the green. A foot longer or shorter would’ve made all the difference in the world, he explained. He would’ve had two putts for the championship.

Then Miller broke in. With a hint of skepticism, he wondered, “What about the next shot? You’re the best chipper in the world. Why didn’t you chip?”

“Well, I was trying to win the tournament, and I figured your worst putt is still better than your best chip. That’s what I was trying to do,” Watson declared. He continued that if he had another chance, he would putt. It just jumped on him, he said.

With a devilish smile and a comic’s timing, Miller said, “You know, it’s not like you needed another jug!”

This elicited another round of laughter, followed by another round of applause.

“Trust me,” Watson replied, after pushing out a faint laugh. “It would’ve been nice. It would’ve been nice.”

Now, if only we could get four more rounds of Watson at Pebble. Who knows what stories he might be able to tell.

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