Watson-Nicklaus remains golf's last true rivalry

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Jack Nicklaus had more majors, but Tom Watson got the best of him in the Duel in the Sun in 1977 at Turnberry.
May 29, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

DUBLIN, Ohio -- Great sports rivalries have certain things in common. They can't be forced, decreed or wished upon a star, but always grow naturally from the memorable, at times fierce, head-to-head competitions that engender lasting loyalties among fans.

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Then the names of the rivals, forever linked, tell the stories.

Ali-Frazier. Bird-Magic. Borg-McEnroe. Jack-Arnie. Evert-Navratilova. Earnhardt-Waltrip. Williams-DiMaggio.

Jack-Tom.

The Nicklaus-Watson rivalry is sometimes overlooked, even in golf's tightly-knit circles. It appropriately comes to the forefront this week at Muirfield Village Golf Club, in the house that Jack built, where Watson will step into the annals alongside 54 other golf immortals who have preceded him as Honorees of the Memorial Tournament.

Even casual followers of the Grand Auld Game are aware of what began the Nicklaus-Palmer rivalry and what formed it for the next 15 years -- the powerful, young Nicklaus, this 22-year-old upstart from Ohio, resolutely challenging the King of Golf in the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1962. When Nicklaus won in a playoff to make the Open his first professional win -- and on Palmer's home turf, no less -- it signaled the arrival of the greatest golfer in the history of the game and the beginning of the competitive eclipse of the most influential and popular player in the game's history.

Pretty powerful stuff, made all the more so by the way it flows like the Mississippi into the present. Twenty years after Nicklaus's opening salvo in the record-setting career that spanned a quarter-century, Watson, fired the shot that denied Nicklaus a record fifth U.S. Open victory. It was 1982 at Pebble Beach, where Jack had won the '61 U.S. Amateur, the 1972 U.S. Open and several Bing Crosby National Pro-Ams, and Nicklaus was being congratulated by ABC's Jack Whitaker next to the 18th green for winning his fifth Open.

Out at the 17th hole, in the greenside rough with a downhill chip that had bogey written all over it, Watson -- the man from Kansas City sometimes referred to in print as Huck Finn for his gap-toothed smile and freckled face -- had other ideas. He holed the chip for birdie and set off a roar that reverberated up to the 18th green and back across the country to the USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J. There would be no fifth Open for Nicklaus, but there would be a first for Tom Watson.

Watson had personally served notice of his presence five years earlier, first edging Jack by one stroke at the 1977 Masters and repeating it at the British Open at Turnberry, again by one stroke, when he prevailed in the legendary "Duel in the Sun" by shooting 66-65 to Nicklaus's 66-66. Nicklaus recognized the stern stuff of which Watson was made. In his 1997 autobiography "Jack Nicklaus: My Story" -- the release of which coincided, incidentally, with Tiger Woods's first major championship statement at the Masters -- Jack wrote that he saw a lot of himself in the young Watson.

"The self-containment and self-assuredness, the depth of commitment and the blinkered determination, the combination of reserve and forthrightness, the marching in a straight line toward some lofty privately determined destination, gave me a fresh insight into my early impact on golf and its supporters," Nicklaus wrote.

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Seeing all that in Watson made Nicklaus realize why there was so much animosity from the Palmer fans at Oakmont in '62 and later on as Jack continued to assume dominance of the game en route to a record 18 professional major championships and, still second only to Sam Snead, 73 tour wins.

"No wonder everyone yelled so hard for Arnie Palmer when I started bulling my way up the mountain," Nicklaus wrote. "This guy knows where he's going and to heck with who gets wounded on the way. Winning is the only thing, just as it was with me."

And no wonder everyone was yelling so hard for Tom Watson when he darn near won a record sixth British Open, and the implausible age of 59, in 2009 at Turnberry, 26 years after his last major championship win -- which was his fifth British Open, in 1983, at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England. Nicklaus was among those rooting for Watson to pull it off, knowing how much it would have meant, to Watson personally and to the sport of golf.

A par for Watson at the last, rather than the bogey and his loss in a playoff to Stewart Cink, would have meant the world's oldest golf championship would have been won by the oldest man to win a major championship -- breaking by 11 years the record set in 1968 by the 48-year-old Julius Boros in the PGA Championship.

Now there's a record that might have endured for a while. As it was, Watson finished his regular TOUR career with 39 victories, eight of them major championships. He didn't break any of Nicklaus's records, but he broke his heart a few times. In Jack's first rivalry with Palmer, he went 3-2 on the five occasions between 1960-67 that the pair finished 1-2 at major championships. Between 1977-82, Nicklaus and Watson finished 1-2 in four major championships -- Watson won all four.

Professional golf has not had a rivalry to match it since. Tiger-Phil? Woods, with his 14 major championships, is, at age 36, still four shy of tying Nicklaus. He and Mickelson, who is 41, have had their battles -- they are deadlocked at 13-13-4 in their 30 head-to-head pairings with Mickelson on a 5-0 run since 2007. That leaves a glimmer of hope that the Tiger-Phil rivalry could still rise to the level of Jack-Tom, but they have never finished 1-2 in a major championship.

As for all the talk about a rivalry emerging between the two 23-year-olds -- Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler -- we'll have to wait and see. McIlroy has one major championship win, the 2011 U.S. Open, and Fowler won his first PGA TOUR event, the Wells Fargo Championship, about a month ago. McIlroy did finish tied for second there, so that's a start.

Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.

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