He was even better two years later. In 1977, Watson edged out Jack Nicklaus in two majors, by two strokes in the Masters and by a single shot in the British Open at Turnberry, site of perhaps the greatest victory of his 38-year professional career and, after last week, also the site of likely his most heartbreaking near-miss.
In 1977, Watson shot 65-65 the final two rounds at Turnberry to turn back Nicklaus, his playing partner over the final two days, who shot 65-66. Last week, when he made a oh-he's-human-after-all bogey on the 72nd hole at Turnberry, dropping him into a four-hole playoff with Stewart Cink that resulted in an anti-climactic rout in Cink's favor, Watson's timing could not have been worse.
Back in the mid-1970s, though, Watson's timing could not have been better. Nicklaus, the Golden Bear who burst on the scene in the early 1960s, was threatening to dominate the game. From 1970-1980, Nicklaus won 10 majors, finished second eight times and was in the top 10 in 38 of 44 majors, a ridiculous batting average not even matched by Tiger Woods in any 44 consecutive majors since he turned pro in 1997 (the closest Woods gets is 30 of 44 top 10s from 1998-2009).
Watson, a gap-toothed kid from Kansas City, Mo., who, like Woods, attended Stanford University, won four majors between 1975 and 1980, and four more between 1981 and 1983. He won five British Opens on a record five different golf courses (Carnoustie, 1975; Turnberry, 1977; Muirfield, 1980; Royal Troon, 1982; Royal Birkdale, 1983).
Much is made of the fact that Woods, with 14 major victories, is within sight of Nicklaus's record 18 major wins. Wouldn't the Golden Bear's numbers look a little more intimidating if he hadn't been a runner-up to Watson in four majors?
What Watson did in the 1970s is bring competition back into the pro game. The other challengers were formidable but not Nicklaus's equal over the long haul. Arnold Palmer, a seven-time major winner from 1958-1964, was fading as Nicklaus was reaching his peak. South African Gary Player won seven of his nine majors during Nicklaus's pro career but only three after 1972. Lee Trevino, who like Watson made Nicklaus a runner-up four times in major championships, won six majors from 1968 to 1984 but only one after 1974.
The intimidation factor with Woods today is legendary. He won his first major, the 1997 Masters, by 12 shots at the age of 21. He's won the PGA Championship by five shots, the British Open by eight and the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links by a ridiculous 15 strokes.
But the facts say Nicklaus was at least as intimidating in his day. And he won eight of his 18 majors after trailing going into the final round, something Tiger has yet to do once.
Two of Watson's major wins show he wasn't fazed by Nicklaus's status as the man to beat. The first was "The Duel in the Sun" at Turnberry in 1977. The second came in 1982 at Pebble Beach, where Nicklaus had won the 1961 U.S. Amateur, the 1972 U.S. Open and three Bing Crosby National Pro-Am titles.
In the 1982 U.S. Open, Nicklaus, two years removed from his last major victory but not yet done winning them, was playing just ahead of Watson and had finished at 4 under. Watson faced a delicate chip from the rough at the par-3 17th, needing two pars to match Nicklaus. Watson's caddy, the late Bruce Edwards, told his pro to "get it close." Watson had other ideas, and told Edwards he intended to hole the shot. Improbably, he did just that for a birdie, then birdied 18 to win by two shots.
Given a similar scenario today, with Tiger Woods in the clubhouse, can you think of any pro on the tour who could do the same?
I would say it's doubtful. And that's why pro golf needs someone like a Tom Watson, someone who can keep competition, and suspense, in the game.
Don't get me wrong. I think Tiger Woods has been and will continue to be great for golf. Some golf fans, many of whom have no clue about the nature of the sport, wonder what's wrong with Tiger if he doesn't win every event he plays. I think golf would be worse off if he did win every event he played.