Another authentic American hero was born last week out of the gloom and crusty old atmosphere of golf on the linkslands of Britain. In a playoff for the British Open that was so thrilling even the most hardened of souls felt like dancing around the burns and bunkers, young Tom Watson finally became a champion, a new person and one hellacious player. After a lot of slightly baroque things had happened on the becalmed, de-roughed and tranquilized beast of Carnoustie, it all came down to a Sunday match between the 25-year-old Watson, who admits he possibly thinks too much, and an equally young Australian, Jack Newton, who admits he drinks too much. And Watson, as they might say of him across the sea, was cast-iron tough in his cheeky little cap—and just when he had to be.
It was pretty much agreed before the 18-hole playoff began that Watson was the better golfer of the two and certainly would have had fewer schooners of beer the night before. But could he hold together as he had on Saturday in gaining the tie? Holding together was not something Watson had done so well in the past. As for Newton, who is almost as good-looking as his wife, it would be a typical evening. What are you going to do, Jack? "Get drunk again," he said, smiling, chain-smoking, hoisting a mug.
Now off they went under a darkening Scottish sky that would produce more than a drizzle. "My game plan," Watson said, "is to play conservatively for 12 or 13 holes and see if he makes his mistakes. If it's still close, I'll have to get aggressive."
Newton's scrambling and his putting and, for that matter, his tough nature kept it close. Through nine holes they were both even par. Newton birdied the 12th but bogeyed the 13th, and they were still even at the 14th, a short par-5. This hole produced two sensational shots.
July 20, 1975
First, Newton hit a pitch in the rain that ran up to within a foot of the cup. The pressure was now on Watson, and he responded by pitching dead into the hole for an eagle 3. Newton, who had said, "I'll be using match-play tactics," could only shake his head and light another cigarette.
Watson lost his one-shot lead when he missed the 16th green and bogeyed. And then at the 17th he had to stare at the five-foot putt for a par when Newton was already safely in. But Tom rammed it home as if it were a gimme. That would have been the perfect spot for Watson to do what he had so often done in the past—to miss, and start blowing another one.
Watson, who has always been a solid swinger with tremendous promise, had been waiting all day for Newton—who can come off the ball and hit it almost anywhere—to show signs of falling apart. But it did not happen until the last hole. They were both in the fairway with irons left to the green. Newton hit first and caught it thin, pulling the shot into the left-hand bunker. Watson calmly put his ball right on the green, bringing the club head through, as he does, with so much speed you would hope never to find your ankle in the way of it. Newton's bunker shot was O.K. but not what he needed; he was left with a 10-footer. When Watson putted beautifully up for a tap-in, for a 71, Newton did not have one more putt left in him. He had holed too many to get where he was. This one he missed.
It was not easy to digest the atrocities that were committed on Carnoustie through the first three rounds of this championship. This course had always been considered the toughest of all the British links. Only four previous Opens had been held there and quite a golfer had won each of them: Tommy Armour, Henry Cotton, Ben Hogan and Gary Player. And through all of that, only five rounds had been shot below 70. Of these, Hogan's closing 68 in 1953 had been regarded as one of the game's monumental rounds, for in the cold and winds of that afternoon Carnoustie was said to have played to a par of about 76.
But now came a flood of scores that made Hogan's 68 look routine—in the record books, at least. Peter Oosterhuis equaled the record 68 on Wednesday's opening round, and six other players broke 70. The Scottish dailies shouted it out in wonderment. And then came Thursday and a rush of scores that made the day before a dim memory. Four guys shot 67, including Watson and the peculiar Scottish club pro, David Huish, who would seize the halfway lead by two strokes but only shrug and say that no matter what happened he wasn't going to miss out on "golf week" at North Berwick when he would get to sell a whole lot of clubs and balls. Nor would he consider going on the tour. "I don't see why I should do somethin' I don't want to do," Huish said. "On the tour I'd miss my home cookin'."
No sooner had everyone been given a chance to swallow these 67s than there came the first of Bobby Cole's 66s, and fearsome Carnoustie had a new record in only 24 hours. The South African seemed to be playing beautifully as he removed the ball from the cups and tipped his cap in the manner of Gary Player, who was once his idol.
The field wasn't through with Carnoustie, however. Friday turned up calm again and, with the beast down and panting, people were going to flog it, as if to get back for the years of suffering. This was the day the Americans finally got interested, the day Johnny Miller birdied five of the first seven holes, that Watson birdied four of the first six, that Hale Irwin ripped off four birdies in a row on the front side, that Jack Nicklaus flirted with a low round but settled for 68.
But it was also the day Cole gouged out another 66 and the day that Newt the Beaut burst fourth with a 65, which might have equaled the number of beers he'd had over the past 48 hours or so. "Jack Newton is striking a blow for all the fun lovers," said a fun lover in the press tent.
The final round began with the whole world under par behind Cole's 12-under total of 204, and if one bothered to take stock of things he discovered that Carnoustie had now yielded the ungodly number of 34 sub-70 rounds. Nicklaus knew why. "An easy course lets people score well who ordinarily wouldn't," he said. Nicklaus had known precisely how easy the course was for several days. In four practice rounds he had shot 67, 65, 67, 65.
For Saturday's play, however, just enough of a true Carnoustie breeze came up, about 12 mph, to change the club selection on every hole. And the Royal and Ancient, hoping, no doubt, to protect some kind of honor for Carnoustie, took the precaution of placing just about every pin on a knob or in a dark corner of a green.
Wind or no wind, Carnoustie's last four holes might be the best, most demanding and intriguing finish anywhere in golf. With those factories sitting there across the road, they aren't that scenic but they are brutal beyond belief if you're only playing for fun, let alone a major championship.
The 15th is a 461-yard par-4 down a narrow alley, and into the proper Carnoustie wind it's a blind iron second shot to a green that doesn't exist. The 16th is a 235-yard par-3 where the pin normally sits in a bunker. And then comes the Barry Burn, as the Scots call it. The burn—it would be a creek in Arkansas—rambles around and over the 17th and 18th holes, causing every sort of problem from the tees and on the approaches. The par-4 17th demands an iron from the tee although it measures 454 yards. You have to hit an iron that is not too short but not too long, and then you can have anything from a spoon to a three-iron to a green protected by sand hills. The 18th, which had been shortened to a par-4 this time, played 448 yards—a drive and a midiron, if you didn't drive into the burn or a bunker and if you didn't hit the iron into the burn or a bunker or a grandstand or out of bounds.
What these holes did was conspire to decide the championship, as everyone knew they would. Consider the Saturday finish of the leading contenders. Going to the 15th tee, Newton was 12 under, Cole 11 under, Miller 10 under, Watson nine under and Nicklaus still there at eight under.
Nicklaus was playing up ahead and he said to his American caddie, Angelo Argea, "One birdie'll take it, Angie, because those guys are going to fly apart back there." Jack played the four holes in even par, nearly getting his birdie on the last hole with a chip shot. Miller, after getting himself in the mood with a brilliant 66 on Friday, thought he needed birdies. Gambling, he played two over on the last four, bogeying 16 and 18 and finishing in total shock. Cole went completely to pieces with wild shots and bogeys on 15, 16 and 17 and was lucky to have had even a chance to tie after the 17th, where his tee shot hit a hazard post, preventing him from going in the water. Something caught up with Newt the Beaut—the beer or the pressure—and, like Cole, he saw his wheels come off, bogeying 15, 16 and 17 with a variety of trick shots.
It was Watson who played most of the golf in the final round. He was the only one of the leaders to break par on the front nine, and if he hadn't three-putted three straight holes he might have sailed in. He faltered only at the 16th with a bogey, but on 15, 17 and 18 he drilled shots into the flags. His three-wood to the 17th was a classic, but he missed the putt. He felt he had to birdie 18. He busted a drive and had a nine-iron, of all things, to the green. It was splendid, about 20 feet from the cup. And he just hammered the putt into the hole for a finishing birdie.
"This was really satisfying," said Watson after tying Newton at 279. "It was great to play well when I had to for a change." For the past two or three years Watson has been blowing up in tournaments, and at Carnoustie he had been trying to work on his attitude. People attempted to help, either by teasing him or lecturing him. Before the final round Byron Nelson told him, "You're playing the best golf of anyone here. Remember those last four holes. Don't give up or get discouraged." At that point, Watson had made 18 birdies, more than anyone. He was playing the best golf. And as he left to tee off on Sunday, someone else told him, "Don't let this bother you, Tom, but this is for America today."
Watson laughed at that but went out and saved us—and himself—some pride.