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30 Years Ago, Tom Watson and Gil Morgan Made Tucson Muni Match-Play Memories

Tom Watson Tom Watson in 1984 (Getty Images)


Some of you might think this PGA Tour flirtation with Tucson and match play is a relatively recent phenomenon. Not true. While the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship has been a weather-plagued fixture in this southern Arizona town since 2007, first at The Gallery, then down the road at Dove Mountain, there are a few of us who remember an older version. The Tour first foisted match play and Tucson on the world in 1984, with something called the Seiko Tucson-Match Play Championship. The event carried on for three years, the first edition kicking off the Tour in January, the final two ending the season in October/November. I should remember a nugget or two from the first one -- I was there.
Dan Jenkins was there also, for Sports Illustrated. I was mostly catching winter rays, downing suds and watching what shots I could see on the poker-table-flat muni where I had played dozens of rounds as a University of Arizona student. Jenkins was writing about it, and as always, writing well.
“To start the 1984 season, professional golf went to the Arizona desert and dug up a dinosaur called match play. And it may be safe to predict that the prehistoric animal would have crawled back under its rock if Tom Watson hadn’t been up to the challenge of winning an event called the Seiko Tucson-Match Play Championship.“
Jenkins later summed up the downside of the format where television and spectators are concerned: “The trouble with match play, of course, is that a lot of golfers never make it to the 16th hole; in fact, the vast majority never make it to Saturday or Sunday.”
“Match play,” continued Jenkins, “is the oldest form of golfing competition. You and me, head-to-head, who can win the most holes. Before World War II there were as many as five match play events on the tour, including the PGA Championship itself, which was settled at one-on-one competition for its first 39 years. But along came TV, and the networks weren’t about to invest sizable chunks of money in a golf telecast if Sam Snead was going to lose in the second round and Chandler Harper was going to battle it out with Henry Williams Jr. in the PGA final, as was the case in 1950. Match-play tournaments faded away. The PGA switched to medal play in 1958 and promptly got on TV.”
Even as a college senior, I knew the format was fun, different, but goofy. Match play was what my roommate and I played, 9 holes, for a beer. I also knew that Randolph Park’s North course, even after a 1980 tweak by an associate of Pete Dye, was still just a mediocre, flat muni. Of course, it was my muni, so I was proud anyway.
Matches I would have liked to say I saw: Jim Dent over Gary McCord, 2 up, in Round 3; Lanny Wadkins over Ben Crenshaw, extra holes, in the quarterfinals; J.C. Snead over Craig Stadler, overtime, in Round 1, in a match where stoicism had to be in short supply.
I did see the final -- and I predicted who would be in it. Watson was one of history’s greatest players at mastering unusual (bad) conditions and surely Randolph Park and a match play event qualified in that department. He also had won in Tucson before, at the unforgettable 1978 Joe Garagiola Tucson Open. Many would have predicted golf’s top gunslinger, Lanny Wadkins, would reach the final, but he lost in the semis to Dr. Gil Morgan. Why did I like Morgan’s chances? He was the reigning king of the munis, having won at Tucson (and Randolph Park -- at stroke play) the year before, beating, ahem, Wadkins in a playoff and then won by two the next week at the Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open on the busiest muni in the U.S., Rancho Park, where he edged, ahem, Wadkins by two.
The final was close, but not exactly riveting, with neither player making any putts of note, other than Watson's six-foot par save at 15, which preserved his 2-up lead. Yet, in its own way, it was truly compelling. This was mano-a-mano golf between two of the game's current greats. This was the format everybody played, including me. Slice two drives out-of-bounds? Fine. Let's move onto the next hole. This was all happening on my home course. The air was electric--for awhile.
Upon reflection, Watson's 2 and 1 victory gave the inaugural Seiko Match Play a marquee winner, but I wasn't fooled. This was still humble Randolph Park, not Pebble Beach and no matter how much the Tour wanted the event to shine, it didn't. And now, back to Dove Mountain.
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by Kevin Cunningham