In 1977 golf had one of its best years, and so did Tom Watson. At that point the hard-swinging kid from Kansas City, Mo., had won one major, a British Open, but no one could have predicted what he would become: the greatest rival Jack Nicklaus had.
Most cite the Duel in the Sun at Turnberry as the beginning of that rivalry, but earlier in '77 Watson had made a nerve-racking downhill 15-footer on the 17th green at Augusta National that broke a tie with the Golden Bear, who was addressing his ball in the 18th fairway. The ensuing roar caused Jack to back away, and he ended up hitting his approach fat, making bogey and losing by two. Jack was 37 years old, had won 14 majors and was without peer in the game. What followed that year was a gift to golf, and there's a chance we'll get the same present in 2012.
A middle-aged Tiger Woods, 36, is stuck on 14 majors, and though he's tussled with Ernie, Vijay and Phil, he's never had a player of like ability go shot for shot with him on Sunday in a major. Rory McIlroy (above) could change that. Like Watson, Rory has one major and is blessed with uncommon talent.
Tiger, now healthy and with his swing changes settling in, will be among the favorites at Augusta and likely at every other major. Imagine, though, if Rory, as Watson did to Jack at Turnberry, looks at Tiger on the 16th tee late on Sunday and says, "This is what it's all about, isn't it?" What a year it could be.
Brandel Chamblee is a 15-year Tour vet and Golf Channel analyst.
GOLF PLUS will next appear in the March 5 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
FRED VUICH (CHAMBLEE)
ROBERT BECK (MCILROY)