Wednesday, 22 June 2016

1985 US Open: Denis Watson

A one-shot penalty fortunately did not derail Dustin Johnson's US Open hopes in 2016, but 31 years earlier, a Zimbabwean did pay the price for an indiscretion on a green.

Dustin Johnson could have been forgiven for wondering if he would ever win a major championship. Some of his near misses and collapses are well-documented: an 82 in the final round at Pebble Beach in 2010; grounding his club in a bunker at Whistling Straits on the 72nd hole of the 2010 US PGA; his out of bounds shot during Darren Clarke's Open win at Royal St George's in 2011; and that three-putt at Chambers Bay to hand Jordan Spieth the 2015 US Open. A sorry catalogue of personal anguish.

So we can only begin to imagine what must was going through Johnson's head during that final round at Oakmont in the recent US Open. As a rules official took him to one side on the 12th tee to inform Johnson that there was a ruling to be made about his moving ball on the fifth green, many of us started to ponder whether DJ had found another way to lose a major. Surely the thought must have entered Johnson's head too.

It wasn't the first time that a moving ball has provided a talking point at the US Open. Luckily Johnson gathered himself and got over the line, although as someone who had £1 on Shane Lowry at 100/1 I have to say that at one point I thought my luck was in. But in 1985 it was a different story for Zimbabwe's Denis Watson. An incident in the first round at Oakland Hills would prove crucial come the conclusion of the event, and would leave Watson contemplating one of the biggest what-ifs of his life.

The 1985 US Open was anything but dull. The final round in particular was the very definition of sporting drama, the typical final day of a major golf championship, as nerves frayed and each of the main protagonists took it in turns to seemingly blow their chance of glory. Denis Watson sat in the clubhouse watching and waiting, wondering if his even par total would be enough. His mind must surely have also drifted back occasionally to the eighth hole of his first round on the Thursday.

Putting for a par on the par four eighth, Watson left his putt agonisingly short, before walking the ten feet distance to the hole to tap in for a bogey. But as he arrived at his ball, Watson paused. It would turn out to be a crucial moment of the 1985 US Open. "I walked up to see how close it was and said, 'I think it's still moving,' and backed off," Watson said. "It didn't fall, and I stepped up to knock it in when it fell in the hole." Unfortunately for Watson, just like a contestant in Mallet's Mallet, he would pay for his pause and hesitation.

Jim Murray, writing in the LA Times, takes up the story. "The ball fell. A four, right? Wrong. The USGA says you can only wait 10 seconds over a hanging lie in a cup. Ten seconds! Tunney was down longer than that. Denis Watson got a two-stroke penalty. Instead of his par, he got a 6. He would have been better off if he ran up to his ball and tapped it in, even though it was technically still rolling."

"The rule is a little cranky," Watson indicated when speaking about the incident on the Friday. "An official came up and told me I'd taken too long, that I'd stood there 35 seconds when the rule is 10 seconds, whether the ball is still moving or not. That's the rule, so I was wrong, but I think the way it was handled was disappointing. I was quite upset at the time and bogeyed the next two holes." On a day where only seven men broke 70, Watson's penalty looked costly. His 72 (two-over-par) total meant he wasn't out of contention, yet Watson needed to put the disappointment at the eighth behind him, and hit back on the Friday.

And what a reaction. Watson equalled the course record shot by Chen Tze-chung (T.C. Chen) the day before, his 65 putting the Zimbabwean in fifth place, as players such as Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Bernhard Langer, Lee Trevino, Craig Stadler, and Ben Crenshaw missed the cut. Watson only had 23 putts in his second round, but it would still be the one on the previous day that the press wanted to talk about.

"Once the round (Thursday's) was over and the penalty was official, I forgot it," Watson informed the media. "Golf is a very tormenting game. If you dwell on things like that, you lose sight of your reason for playing. Which is to play the game one shot at a time against the golf course." Watson had managed to move on from the moment, and now sat three shots behind surprise leader T.C. Chen prior to moving day. The events of the next two days would bring the episode back into focus once more, though. Watson would not be alone in having some regrets over that June weekend in 1985.

Watson would card a 73 and 70 in his final two rounds, as Seve Ballesteros, Tom Kite, Payne Stewart and Lanny Wadkins all tried and failed to beat the clubhouse leader's even par score. A winner of three US PGA tour events in the August and September of the previous year, Watson was now looking well placed to add a major championship to his impressive CV. Especially when you consider the trials and tribulations that the three main contenders were going through on that suffocating Sunday of tension.

Everything had been going so well for Chen. The first ever albatross in a US Open had helped him shoot a 65 in the opening round, and his second and third round aggregate totals of 134 and 203 saw the Taiwanese man equal the lowest 36 and 54 hole scores in the tournament. Leading by four as he played the fifth hole on the Sunday, Chen was looking good to become the first wire-to-wire champion since Tony Jacklin in 1970. But then the wheels came off in unusual circumstances.

Chipping on to the fifth green, Chen followed through on his shot and struck the ball when it was in mid-air, the double hit costing him another stroke on the way to a disastrous quadruple bogey eight. "When I arrived today, I didn't feel what you call the Open pressure," Chen stated. "I was confident until the fifth hole. After that, all my confidence was gone." In the initial aftermath, Chen was reeling, bogeying the next three holes. He did recover slightly, and tied Watson's total. But Chen's round of 77 proved one too many for the man sometimes cruelly referred to as "Two Chip" Chen tag from that day on.

Canadian Dave Barr would also spurn his opportunity. Leading with six holes remaining, Barr bogeyed three holes, including consecutive dropped shots on 17 and 18, ending up on level par with Watson and Chen. All three had come so close in their different ways, but it was left to Andy North to somehow crawl underneath the finishing tape.

North also did his best to let the trophy slip from his grasp. The 1978 US Open winner had experienced a lean time since an elbow operation in 1983, his earnings of just $22,131 in 1984 proof that North was heading south. But he would prove to be the last man standing at Oakland Hills. The only man under par for the tournament, North bogeyed the final hole to sneak home by a shot, winning his second major with just eight birdies during the week.

North's triumph was not exactly warmly received in some circles. "The winner didn't win it, he inherited it. Andrew Stewart North just thinks he won the 1985 National Open," Jim Murray wrote in the LA Times, adding a reference to the ill fortune of Watson. "You don't have to be a CPA to figure out that Denis Watson lost this tournament to a pencil."

Shav Glick, writing in the same paper, also argued the case for Watson. "Can a player take only 278 strokes during 72 holes of the U.S. Open and lose to a player who takes 279 strokes? Yes, if the golfer is Denis Watson." In subsequent years the USGA changed the rules to only impose a one shot penalty for a discretion like Watson's. Too little too late unfortunately for the Zimbabwean.

Sadly 1985 did not get much better for Watson. Playing in the Goodyear Classic in South Africa, he struck a hidden tree stump with great force, leading to a serious whiplash injury. The damage to his neck, wrist and elbow was so severe that a doctor told Watson that he would never play competitively again. Watson did make it back to play at the top level, yet his professional career was never the same after that 9-iron in South Africa. "That one swing changed my life," Watson later admitted, as his luck went from bad to worse.

North too would suffer in 1985, losing to Sam Torrance in the singles of the Ryder Cup, his collapse on the 18th confirming America's first defeat in the event since 1957. And North never won another tournament after the 1985 US Open. It seemed that none of those involved at the top of the leader board at Oakland Hills would ever experience the good times again.

To his great credit, Watson has since enjoyed great success on the Seniors Tour, his 2007 PGA Championship a major win that had eluded him in such a cruel manner 22 years earlier. Admittedly golf is a game of ifs and putts, and we will never know what would have followed if Watson had struck that putt at the eighth a touch softer or harder on June 13, 1985. But the whole of 1985 remains a what-if for Watson, from that putt to that tree stump.

At least Dustin Johnson finally got to right some of his wrongs, his first major worth the wait. If Watson hadn't had to wait for so long at the eighth hole, then maybe he would have joined the major winning ranks back in June 1985.

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