Miller, Watson Shine In Second Member Education Series

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Two U.S. Open champions reminisce: Johnny Miller (left) and Tom Watson were main attractions during
the second USGA Member Education Series. (Don Liebig/USGA)

By David Normoyle, USGA

Pebble Beach, Calif. - As the waves crashed up along the Beach House in Stillwater Cove on Monday night, with the 17th green not far behind them, Johnny Miller and Tom Watson sat and talked about golf. They spoke about their favorite moments in a decades-long rivalry, about when they first heard about each other, and about why being a U.S. Open champion is so special. But mostly they just talked golf.

The USGA’s second Member Education Series began at Pebble Beach on Sunday with a dinner for nearly 200 people in the ballroom of the Inn at Spanish Bay. Over dessert and conversations with fellow USGA Members from 30 states and three foreign countries, Dick Rugge, the USGA’s senior technical director, spoke at length about the USGA’s role in testing golf equipment to ensure it conforms to the Rules of Golf, and the cutting-edge research the USGA does on virtually every aspect of golf equipment, from grooves to balls and everything in between.

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He brought three props from the USGA’s headquarters in Far Hills, N.J. - all drivers. One was a metal-headed driver from 1979 that registered less than 150cc, if that. Another was more modern, maxing out at the full 460cc permitted by the Rules of Golf. The final club, which never quite made it to market, weighed in at 1000cc. It was enormous by comparison. Rugge’s point: if the USGA was not in the business of monitoring equipment, there’s no telling what would happen with golf technology.

The next morning, Members gathered for a Q&A session with a panel of speakers who answered wide-ranging questions on the state of golf. Rugge and USGA President Jim Vernon represented the Association. The third member was R.J. Harper, the senior vice president of golf for Pebble Beach and general chairman for the 2010 U.S. Open. Harper discussed preparations for the championship and the role Pebble Beach’s part-owner, Arnold Palmer, played in preparing the layout for its fifth U.S. Open.

The fourth speaker was the star everyone came to see: Miller, the 1973 U.S. Open champion. From the outset, Miller was candid and entertaining, recounting a famous and funny story about the shank he produced on the 16th hole at Pebble Beach during the final round of the 1971 AT&T National Pro-Am (formerly Bing Crosby Pro-Am). USGA Members were in stitches after learning from that moment forward, in every pressure-filled situation throughout his career, Miller’s recurring swing thought was, ‘OK, just don’t shank it.’ It was not the stuff of modern sports psychologists, but it was vintage Miller.

Following a brief short-game clinic, the Members ventured to the Links at Spanish Bay, the newest course among the Pebble Beach Resort umbrella, designed in 1987 by Watson, Robert Trent Jones Jr. and former USGA President Sandy Tatum. Despite a dismal forecast, the lone passing shower in the middle of the round seemed heaven sent. If Dean Martin could remark of the monsoon that washed out play at the 1967 Crosby, “It was a lovely day for the Crosby,” then this brief January rain on the Monterey Peninsula was palatable.

As much fun as Members had during the first few events, the minds of many were focused on sharing dinner with Miller and Watson Monday night and then having the chance to play Pebble Beach.

Watson arrived on Monday fresh off a season-opening win at the Champions Tour event in Hawaii, where he birdied the last two holes to beat Fred Couples by a shot. Miller’s presence at the reception before dinner in the famous Beach Club on Stillwater Cove caused a stir. But when Watson arrived, with a new victory in hand and memories of the 2009 British Open at Turnberry still fresh, it was a major event. Members young and old swarmed around him, thanking him for the thrill he gave them, asking for a photo or a quick autograph. Watson just smiled, nodded and said he was lucky to have the chance to do it.

Throughout the dinner, two highlight films rolled on the screen behind the stage. First was the 1972 U.S. Open, won by Jack Nicklaus. Polite attention was paid to Nicklaus, especially since Miller was angling for a victory that year, only to finish seventh. But once the 1982 U.S. Open highlights started playing, the din in the room got quieter and people started paying closer attention. When, at last, it came to the 71st hole, with Watson in gnarly greenside rough and a wedge in hand. The room was nearly silent. Not more than 50 yards outside the windows of the Beach Club stands the famous par-3 hole, the very spot where the shot was struck nearly 28 years ago.

When Watson’s chip hit the flagstick and dropped in the hole, the room erupted with applause and roars. Watson, sitting at the head table, smiled, beamed and turned to the audience, throwing his voice across the room, “Lucky!”

Following a brief post-dinner presentation about the USGA Museum and the longstanding relationship between the USGA and Pebble Beach, featuring rare footage of the 1929 U.S. Amateur and Bob Jones, Watson and Miller enjoyed an intimate conversation with the audience.

The first question, “Johnny, ask Tom the question you said you were going to ask, but weren’t sure he’d answer.”

And so Miller did.

“Tom, just what exactly was going through your mind on that final hole at Turnberry?”

Watson, to the surprise and delight of many in the room, spent 10 minutes sharing every detail of that week, from the glorious sunset on Wednesday night and the purple and pink sky of Turnberry, to the place he had dinner every day for five nights, to the special feeling he had that he, better than anybody in the field, knew Turnberry cold. He’d played six events on the links course. Few players had even one British Open at Turnberry in their pocket. He spoke about what the week meant to him, the outpouring of support and letters, and how he still tries to answer every single one. He discussed how badly that moment stung. And how it still stings. But he’s accepted the disappointment. As Watson’s longtime friend, Vernon poignantly said afterward, “He took it like a man.”

As Miller and Watson recounted their exciting duels, and their final battle at Pebble Beach in 1994, there was a thought that while there might be more times for USGA Members to gather at special places and enjoy golf, there would never be a moment like this.

Watson and Miller. Another U.S. Open at Pebble Beach on the horizon, memories of past glories at Pebble just a stone’s throw away, and Turnberry still close enough to feel.

The only thing left for the attendees was to turn in for the night, with Watson and Miller’s voices in their head.

Their special moment at Pebble Beach was about to be fulfilled.

David Normoyle is the assistant director of the USGA Museum. Contact him with questions or comments at dnormoyle@usga.org.

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USGA Members got the opportunity to play the Links at Spanish Bay and Pebble Beach Golf Links (above),
even though the forecast called for rain. (Don Liebig/USGA)
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