John McGrath: One particular par-3 hole on many courses can derail unwary golfers

The most unforgettable golf shot of Tom Watson’s career was preceded by a guarantee.

A final-round co-leader with Jack Nicklaus in the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Watson appeared to have no other option than to play it safe after his drive on the par-3 17th hole sailed into the fescue rough, 20 feet from the pin.

As Watson gripped a sand wedge, caddie Bruce Edwards, realizing the downward slope of the green posed double-bogey potential if the ball was struck too hard — or not hard enough — offered three words of wisdom.

“Get it close,” he told Watson.

Replied Watson: “Close? Hell, I’m going to make it.”

The ball was only halfway toward the hole when Watson ran onto the green to savor an eyewitness view of a career-defining moment. After it dropped for the birdie-2 that gave him the sole lead through 71 holes, Watson pointed to Edwards in the manner of a basketball shooting star acknowledging an assist off an alley-oop pass.

Although Watson also scored birdie on the par-5 finishing hole to beat Nicklaus by two shots, it was the bold stroke out of the No. 17 rough that packed drama into an already epic rivalry.

Nicklaus, who was in the clubhouse following a Sunday afternoon rally that included five consecutive birdies on the front nine, saw Watson drive into trouble and figured: Either I’ve won, or — worst-case scenario — we’re playing 18 more holes tomorrow.

The USGA craves such theater, which brings us to Chambers Bay, home of the 2015 U.S. Open. Like Pebble Beach, No. 17 on the University Place course is a diabolically constructed par 3. It sets up not so much a birdie opportunity but a kind of last obstacle — a place where 70 holes of championship-caliber golf can be obliterated by a single faulty swing that blows a round sky high. Poof. Gone with the wind.

No. 17 at Chambers Bay is nicknamed “Derailed,” an obvious reference to the active train tracks flanking the right side of the fairway. But “Derailed” also serves as a subtle cautionary note for Sunday leaderboard occupants: You likely won’t win by anything you do on 17, but you definitely can be, well, derailed.

Par works, even for those contenders hard-wired to be aggressive when the sun is setting and they’re trailing by a stroke or two. Save the Prince Valiant comeback for the home hole, a par-5 where eagles can be achieved if creative shots are executed with precision.

Par will work at No. 17 during the Sunday round, and for that matter, it will work on the three other par-3 holes throughout the championship.

“The key to the course are the four par 3’s,” golf instructor Brian Mogg said recently. “They are not birdie holes. If you make four threes, you’ll pick up so much ground on the field.”

Chambers Bay might be unique, but the premise of establishing the 17th hole as a high-risk, low-reward proposition is not. Merion Golf Club, the Ocean Course at Kiawah and TPC Sawgrass — synonymous with the famously treacherous island-green hole where more than 100,000 balls have splashed into the water — are among the golf courses that have established No. 17 as, literally, a finishing hole.

Trailing Vijay Singh by a stroke in the final round, Steve Stricker was in contention to win the first major tournament scheduled in the state of Washington — the 1998 PGA Championship at Sahalee — when he hit his tee shot at 17, a 215-yard par 3 with water to the right and sand to left. Stricker’s drive landed in the bunker and he took bogey.

Game over.

“I struggled with my emotions and my swing,” Stricker said afterward. “I had an opportunity to put a little pressure on Vijay at No. 17 because I had the first tee there, but I didn’t hit a very good shot.”

Then again, neither did Tom Watson on that 1982 afternoon he was tied with Jack Nicklaus at Pebble Beach. Convinced he could do better than put the ball close to the 17th pin, he delivered the swing of a lifetime.

“You could try that shot 100 times and never make it,” Bill Rogers, Watson’s final-round playing partner at the 1982 Open, said afterward.

A prominent golfer, known for his comprehensive grasp of the sport’s history, heard that estimate and raised it.

“A thousand times,” said Jack Nicklaus.