Q&A: Watson recalls ‘love affair’ with Pebble
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 Links. With the audio muted, there was an uncomfortable silence in the room at Pebble’s Beach Club, which happens to overlook the very green.
Earlier this year, more than 200 attendees of the U.S. Golf Association’s Member Program stopped their kibitzing and watched as Watson slipped the leading edge of his sand wedge underneath the ball and feathered it barely onto the putting surface.
What happened next hardly needs an introduction. A huge roar shook the room when the shot vanished and Watson danced around the 17th green.
Watson leaned back in his chair and flashed the same gap-toothed smile. As the applause died down, an older, wiser Watson, now 60, cupped a hand over his mouth and shouted, “Lucky!” The room filled with laughter.
Watson has received a special exemption into this year’s national championship. In addition to his U.S. Open victory at Pebble in 1982, Watson has played in the other three Opens there: 1972, ’92 and 2000.
In advance of his 30th U.S. Open appearance, Watson spoke with Golfweek’s Adam Schupak in an exclusive interview looking back at what he called his “love affair” with Pebble Beach.
“It will be great bookends in my career playing my first and most likely my last there,” Watson said. “Unless I play awfully well.”
Your dad was a historian of the U.S. Open, and it was your childhood dream to win it. When did you dream that dream?
I started dreaming the dream like any kid. I wanted to be as good as Arnold Palmer. He was my idol. My dad could name every U.S. Open champion from the first year in 1895 all the way through. We’d play a game. Who won the ’26 Open? It was Bobby Jones. Who won the ’43 Open? Ah, it wasn’t played. He could name them all. He thought the U.S. Open was the supreme test. He played in two national amateurs; I got in four. I found the USGA course setup to be the toughest. That’s why the U.S. Open was the tournament I wanted to win most.
Your affection for Pebble began when you played the course while attending Stanford University. Tell me about those days.
I forged a relationship with Ray Parga, the starter there, who let me on for free. It cost $10 or $15 to play then. That was a lot of money to me. I went off first as a single Saturday mornings or sometimes Sundays. I never broke 75. When I’d come to the 15th hole, no matter how badly I was playing, I’d make it a game with myself: If I could play even par the last four holes, I’d win the U.S. Open. And I never did.
What your favorite hole at Pebble Beach?
I think No. 8. It’s a hole where if you make par, you just feel like I’ve done it. The three best back-to-back-to-back holes in the world – not just for the difficulty but also the beauty – are Pebble’s Nos. 8-10.
After the second round in 1982, you said at the time you felt you “got away with murder.” What made you feel that way?
I did. I gave myself no chance to win going into the 1982 Open. None. I was playing so poorly. In the first two rounds, I was 3 over both days standing on the 14th and 15th tees, just hoping I would do something to make the cut. The first day, I finished with three birdies on the last four holes; second day, I did the same thing, finishing with three birdies on the last five holes to be at even par after the two rounds. I still was hitting the ball lousy. I went to the practice tee and found a solution. The last two days, I hit the ball beautifully.
In the final round, you drove into the right fairway bunker on No. 16 that your good friend (then-USGA president) Sandy Tatum deepened before the tournament. Why is it you’ve often called saving bogey there in the final round the most overlooked hole in your victory?
I was dead. I had to go out of the bunker sideways. What’s never really been written is the two-putt. I’ve got a 60-foot putt that breaks 10 feet right. I had to get that putt down in two. I left it a foot from the hole. That putt, more than anything – even the ones that I made – kept me in the tournament. Oh, and by the way: I birdied Nos. 17 and 18 to win by 2.
Oh, did you! Let’s talk about that. How did you feel about the 2-iron tee shot on the par-3 17th?
I hit it really solid. I just hooked it too much.
To pitch within 5 feet would’ve been remarkable, but when your caddie, Bruce Edwards, said, “Get it close,” you replied . . . ?
I said, “Get it close, hell. I’m going to hole it.” The thing was, you could see it. It was in the heavy grass, but it was sitting whereI knew I could get underneath it. I took dead aim a foot left of the hole. It landed and started on that line. Halfway there, it started moving left, and I thought, “I hope my read was right.” Sure enough, it was.
Was it difficult to stay in the present and focus on No. 18?
No. My focus immediately went to what I had to do next. Off the tee, I hit 3-wood perfectly. I laid up with a 7-iron and hit a 9-iron for my third shot just past the hole and had a downhill putt there. As my dad said, “You don’t ever know how to lag, do you, son?” I told him it would’ve been 2 inches by. He said, “Bull burger.” Didn’t matter. It went right in the middle of the hole.
You inflicted some of Jack Nicklaus’ most painful defeats, including at Pebble in ’82. What did you learn from the way he handled that moment?
Jack was the best at handling defeat. When I came off the green, he said to me, “You little S.O.B.; you did it to me again.” He said it kind of tongue-in-cheek and gave me that smile of his and he said, “I’m proud of you.”
How many more years will golf fans have to watch you compete in tournament golf?
I don’t know. Eventually my game will leave me and it will be an easy decision. Or maybe it won’t. When I was younger, I didn’t think I would be playing late, past 45-50, but then the Champions Tour came along. I didn’t think I would continue to pack suitcases and leave home. I thought, “I’ve been doing this all my life; I’ll just want to stay home.” No, there’s too much gypsy in me, and I still love to compete.