For three days in Scotland last week the 111-year-old British Open Golf Championship belonged to Bobby Clampett, a 22-year-old American pro out of the Yellow Pages. Then, for much of Sunday's final round, it belonged to Nicky Price—ah, how fleeting the fame of Price—a South African who was about as obscure as a kudu in a clump of thorn trees. Finally, however, order was restored and the title wound up in the hands of Tom Watson for the fourth time in eight years. It should have been gift-wrapped and accompanied by a singing telegram.
Watson started winning this Open at Royal Troon on the west coast of Scotland, hard by the Firth of Clyde, because Clampett shot about a million in the last two rounds after firing very low area codes on Thursday and Friday—actually he soared from 67-66 to 78-77. And eventually Watson did win it because Price, having made three straight birdies, went to the 13th tee in the last round with a three-stroke lead and proceeded to slash and gouge his way out of the championship over the next five holes.
Evidently, Watson can't win all majors as dramatically as he did the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach last month. This time he bogeyed the 15th hole just when he really didn't need to, then routinely parred the final three holes. After that came an interlude during which Watson waited calmly for Price, who grew up in Zimbabwe, to falter in the manner of most unknowns. Earlier in the tournament, Price, 25, mustache, Sundance-style hair, had said, "I wouldn't want to be in Clampett's place with that lead; I couldn't handle it. I just want to finish in the top 10."
There wasn't much doubt among the cognoscenti that Price would eventually cave in, although he took his own sweet time getting around to it. He had been nearer to Clampett than anyone else from the beginning. But such miracles as the one pulled off by Jack Fleck, who stunned Ben Hogan and the rest of the planet Earth by winning the U.S. Open in 1955, are to be expected only once every half century. Price came close at Troon, but the woods are full of close. In the end, after he had played the last six holes in four over par, Price was simply a nice young man who tied Peter Oosterhuis, never a factor, for second and who plans to enter the PGA Tour's qualifying school this fall.
Nevertheless, having started Sunday a stroke behind Clampett, he was definitely in the lead after birdieing 11. Watson, the only certifiable menace to him, was playing three holes ahead and was a stroke behind. Clampett had collapsed. The various former champions in the U.S. contingent were in disarray further back. Jack Nicklaus (1966, '70 and '78) was unable to overcome his opening 77 and would finish tied for 10th with Clampett. Bill Rogers, last year's winner, and Johnny Miller ('76) were both floundering and would end tied for 22nd. Arnold Palmer ('61 and '62) would wind up tied for 27th. So would Lee Trevino ('71 and '72). Tom Weiskopf ('73 at Troon) didn't make the final cut.
So Price had a decent shot. In the final analysis, he lost because he started driving the ball too near to the heather-covered dunes. An errant tee shot cost him a bogey at the 13th. A wild drive, a wilder second shot and a clumsy blast out of a bunker resulted in a horrendous double bogey at 15. That catastrophe catapulted Watson into a tie for the lead. Finally, Price found a way to chip past the cup at the par-3 17th after a fat tee shot, leaving himself a treacherous five-foot putt that would have been impossible even if it hadn't meant the British Open. Other golfers before Price had faced the same putt, and they, too, had misread it. Ben Crenshaw, for one, explained later, "The putt looks like it breaks left, but it goes right. He had no chance." Price's putt indeed slid off to the right as Watson stood patiently behind the 18th green with his wife Linda, hurriedly composing a victory speech.
Watson did a few things right himself in winning for the fourth time on Scottish soil—he was the Open champion at Carnoustie in 1975, at Turnberry in '77 and at Muirfield in '80. Each of these wins had come in a different fashion, and last week's at Troon was no exception. Watson played extremely well during his closing 70, a two-under round, which gave him a four-under total of 284. He drove the ball as expertly and incredibly long as he had at Pebble Beach. He putted bravely and nearly with his usual wizardry on the slower-than-normal greens. He even chipped in for a birdie on Saturday, a little something extra we're coming to expect from Watson.
The best thing Watson did, however, was strike one of the most glorious drives in the history of steel shafts at the 11th hole on Sunday and follow it up with as grand a three-iron to produce the eagle 3 he badly needed to get himself in a position to win.
The 11th is Troon's second-most-famous hole; The Postage Stamp, the 126-yard 8th, is better known, only because it is so short and cute and a lot of Willie Auchterlonies used to talk about it. The 11th is The Railway hole, a 481-yard par-5 that is generally played into a howling wind. It's a narrow chunk of real estate featuring a railroad track and out of bounds to the golfer's right and a long buffet of gorse on the left. The fairway is nothing but moguls. Palmer, who added a good deal of nostalgia and even a few early thrills to Troon last week by leading for a time in the first round, made the brutal 11th famous back in 1962 when, in effect, he won the tournament by subduing it with one eagle and two birdies.
On Sunday Watson reached the 11th tee trailing Price by two. Clampett was driving the final nails in his own coffin by trying for the pins too boldly, overshooting everything and taking bogeys at the 7th, 8th and 9th holes, and Watson needed to make something happen if Price was ever to be subjugated. Watson had displayed his power by driving the 1st green on Saturday, a mere 362 yards. Now, facing a slightly crossing wind that wasn't helping at all, he drove precisely 278 yards and into the heart of the bumpy fairway. His three-iron was on a level lie, and he cracked it perfectly. The ball traveled 203 yards to the green, and a few valuable feet more.
In fact, the ball looked for a moment as if it would roll into the cup for a double eagle. Instead it stopped three feet short, and Watson dropped the putt for the eagle. From there to the clubhouse, Watson made only one minor mistake. That was when his string of comfortable pars was broken by a bogey at the par-4 15th. Here, he hit a six-iron from the light rough through the green, chipped back indifferently and then two-putted. Elsewhere, he stroked birdie putts of medium range to within inches of the cups. His wasn't so much a charge to victory as it was a businesslike journey designed to avoid all possible calamities while waiting for others, like your Nicky Prices, to suffer them.
Sunday marked Watson's seventh win in a major—the four British Opens, the Masters twice, last month's U.S. Open—and that puts him on a new plateau of greatness. Only six immortals have won more than seven: Nicklaus (19), Bobby Jones (13), Walter Hagen (11), Ben Hogan and Gary Player (9) and Palmer (8). Watson's seven ties him with Harry Vardon, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead. He also became only the fifth player to win both the British and U.S. Opens in the same year.
It was, however, one of the few victories that has truly surprised Watson. "I played better from tee to green than I did at Pebble," he said, "but I never expected to win, because I didn't putt all that great. When I came off 18, I thought I'd lost. It's a funny feeling to win this way, because I wasn't prepared for it. I've never had one given to me."
Which is what made it distinctly different from Watson's other Opens. At Carnoustie he had to beat the Australian Jack Newton in a playoff. At Turnberry he had his magnificent one-on-one, 36-hole battle with Nicklaus, surviving by the thread of a single shot. And at Muirfield he had a stroll on the moors, gliding home by four. Now the gift of Troon.
The real loser at Troon, however, wasn't Price, but Clampett, a slightly mysterious but likable lad with perhaps the most potential of any young player on the American tour. Clampett's golf swing is impressive even when his shots go wrong, and hardly any of them did in the first two rounds, when his opening 67 and following 66 almost blew everybody into the Firth.
Clampett is the most studious of golfers. He likes to think about the game in terms of physics, a bent that belies his quiet sense of humor and a hairdo that earned him the nickname of Harpo on the U.S. tour. He's a Northern California kid who sees himself as more of a mechanical golfer than an artistic one. He has a perfect grip and that beautiful swing, and his fellow pros consider him the "best aimer" since Nicklaus. He has been close to winning many times in his two years on the tour—he had four seconds in 1981—and it has long been thought that he might well become the golfer of the late '80s.
All this was before his collapse at Troon, which began on the 42nd hole, the par-5 6th on the third round. Clampett was 12 under par to that point and leading by seven shots. He had worn knickers, posed for thousands of photographs with his girl friend, Ann Mebane, and spoken of his contract with the Bell System Yellow Pages, which is why his golf bag is black and bright yellow and why he often dresses like a bumblebee in the States.
But Clampett's magic and his clear-thinking processes deserted him on that 42nd hole. He played unwisely out of two bunkers and staggered through to a triple-bogey 8. Afterward, it was as if he had been run over by a truck. Mentally, he never recovered—the 78 and 77 were proof of that. The big question Troon posed is how Clampett will handle his debacle there, not how many more majors Watson will collect. A brilliant career may be lying back where the Firth washes up against the sand hills.
"I feel sorry for Bobby," Watson said Sunday evening. "He may be crying right now, but I've cried before, and he'll learn to be tough."
Like Tom Watson did, maybe.