The golfer who didn’t win the US Open because he waited for his ball to drop

The final round of the 1985 US Open was anything but dull. Nerves frayed as each of the main protagonists took it in turns to seemingly blow their chance of glory. As Denis Watson sat in the clubhouse, wondering if his even-par total would be enough to earn him his first major, his mind must surely have also drifted back to the eighth hole of his first round on the Thursday.

Watson had a 10-foot putt on the eighth for a par four on the eighth but he left it agonizingly short. He walked up 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,” he later reflected. “It didn’t fall, so I stepped up to knock it in – then it fell in the hole.” Unfortunately for Watson, he would pay for his pause. The ball dropped into the hole but Watson had left it teetering on the edge of the cup for longer than the 10 seconds allowed by USGA rules, so he was given a two-stroke penalty.

“The rule is a little cranky,” said Watson. “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 two-over-par 72 meant he wasn’t out of contention but Watson needed to put the disappointment behind him and react well on the Friday.

And what a reaction he produced. Watson equalled the course record 65 – which had been set by TC Chen the day before – to move into fifth place, as players such as Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Bernhard Langer, Lee Trevino, Craig Stadler and Ben Crenshaw missed the cut. Watson had made just 23 putts in his second round but the press only wanted to talk about one from the day before.

“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.” Watson had moved on and now sat just three shots behind surprise leader Chen with two rounds done and two to play.

Watson carded a 73 on Saturday and a 70 on Sunday to leave him on even par after 72 holes. Seve Ballesteros, Tom Kite, Payne Stewart and Lanny Wadkins all tried to beat his score but they all failed. With each new arrival in the clubhouse, Watson looked more well placed to win his first major championship – especially when you consider the trials his three main contenders were suffering on the course.

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 totals of 134 after two rounds and 203 after three rounds equalled the lowest 36- and 54-hole scores in the tournament’s history. He was leading by four shots when he stepped up to play the fifth hole on Sunday and was looking good to become the first wire-to-wire champion since Tony Jacklin in 1970. But then the wheels came off.

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’,” he said. “I was confident until the fifth hole. After that, all my confidence was gone.” Chen bogeyed the next three holes. He recovered slightly, and tied Watson’s total, but his 77 was not good enough to win the title and left him with the nickname “Two Chip” Chen.

Canadian Dave Barr also spurned his opportunity. Leading with six holes remaining, he bogeyed three holes – including the 17th and 18th – to end up on level par alongside Watson and Chen. All three had come so close in their different ways, but it was left to Andy North to somehow crawl below the finishing tape. 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 all week.

North’s triumph was not universally popular. “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.”

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 US Open and lose to a player who takes 279 strokes? Yes, if the golfer is Denis Watson.” The USGA later reduced the punishment for breaking the “10-second rule” to one shot, but it was too little too late for the Zimbabwean.

Sadly, things were about to get much worse 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 defied that prediction and returned to the top level but his professional career was never the same again. “That one swing changed my life,” Watson later admitted.

To his great credit, Watson went on to enjoy great success on the Seniors Tour, even winning the 2007 PGA Championship and becoming a major champion 22 years after his cruel fate at Oakland Hills. Golf is a game of ifs and putts, and we will never know what would have happened if Watson had struck that putt a touch softer or harder. But the whole of 1985 remains a what-if for Watson, from that putt to that tree stump.

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