If the only Watsons you know in the world of golf are Bubba and Tom, then pull up a chair for the tale of Denis Watson at the 1985 U.S. Open.
Watson held the final-round clubhouse lead as challengers wilted around him. It wasn’t anything that he did on Sunday, however, that would cost him the tournament.
Facing a 10-footer for par at the eighth hole during his opening round. His putt left the ball perched on the edge of the cup, but it wouldn’t fall.
“I walked up to see how close it was and said, ‘I think it’s still moving,’ and backed off,” he said later. “It didn’t fall, so I stepped up to knock it in – then it fell in the hole.”
Great for Watson, right? He saved a stroke. Not so fast. Or rather, not fast enough. He had waited longer than the USGA-allotted 10 seconds before tapping in. Thus, he was assessed a two-stroke penalty.
Watson dealt with the opposite of Dustin Johnson’s problem at the 2016 U.S. Open: An official approached him immediately and told him about the infraction. He was infuriated. And running hot, he bogeyed the next two holes.
He followed his first-round disappointment with a course-record 65 Friday and vaulted up the leaderboard.
“Once the round was over and the penalty was official, I forgot it,” said Watson. “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.”
After a third-round 73 and a fine final-round 70, Watson steed at even par after 72 holes. Seve Ballesteros, Tom Kite, Payne Stewart and Lanny Wadkins all wilted. Andy North, however, didn’t fade, finishing at one under for the tournament despite a final-hole bogey.
“The winner didn’t win it, he inherited it,” wrote Jim Murray in the LA Times. “Andrew Stewart North just thinks he won the 1985 National Open. You don’t have to be an accountant to figure out that Denis Watson lost this tournament to a pencil.”
Indeed, if not assessed the penalty, Watson would have beat North by a stroke. In fact, he took 278 strokes to North’s 279. However, the USGA added two to that number because he waited 30 seconds, rather than 10, for his ball to fall from the edge of the cup to the bottom. Seems more than a little silly.
Can you imagine if the Watson ruling had taken place in the present climate of anti-USGA sentiment? Executive director Mike Davis would be pilloried.
And unfortunately for Watson, the emotional agony of the 1985 U.S. Open was followed by physical pain. At the Goodyear Classic in South Africa, Watson hit a tree root and came away with damage for his neck, wrist, and elbow.
He was told he’d never play golf again. And while he did return to golf and had success later on the senior circuit, the pain he endured, both mental and physical, is historically awful in this maddening game.