There will never be another champion quite like Tom Watson

Tuesday June 22nd, 2010
Tom Watson tied for 29th place at Pebble Beach.
Robert Beck/SI

The old hands will tell you that the '60 U.S. Open was the best ever. Arnold Palmer, 30-year-old working-class hero, won. Jack Nicklaus, 20-year-old Ohio State frat boy, had his coming-out party. Ben Hogan, 47-year-old golfing legend, had his last gasp at a major. Pebble Beach 2010 was no Cherry Hills 1960. It was a dance that never found its rhythm. Still, an intriguing triumvirate emerged, with a bigger-than-life star (Tiger Woods), a singular young talent (Ryo Ishikawa) and an aging, relevant lion (Tom Watson).

Ishikawa, the 18-year-old Japanese golfer, made a splashy U.S. Open debut, breaking par in his inaugural round while dressed from head to toe in bubble-gum pink. (He finished 33rd, with a final-round 80.) Woods, 34, desperate to reclaim his place in the world, played well enough to maintain his No. 1 ranking. (He tied for fourth, as he did at the Masters.) And Tom Watson, 60, playing on a USGA invitation and an artificial left hip, became the only golfer to compete in all five Opens held at Pebble.

The old man practically stole the show. Watson played the first two rounds with Ishikawa, known in Japan as the Bashful Prince. Something must get lost in translation. The kid practically screams, "How do you like me now?" After checking out his action, Watson decided, in his voice-of-god way, that Ryo's the real deal. "His putting is excellent," Watson said. "I love it. He has great touch. He hits the ball very high. That combination, you're going to win. Not a question."

Regarding TW I and TW II: They both went to Stanford (Watson graduated); they both won the Open at Pebble; they both have lockers in the Champions Room at Augusta National. But Watson, not a bashful prince, has been all over Woods for his cussing and club throwing and, in an indirect way, his life with the ladies. (Regarding Woods's private life, Watson said in January, "It's something he needs to get control of.") During a practice round last week, when the TWs got trapped in a 10th-tee traffic jam, they ignored each other, "their cold shoulders turning the tee into an outdoor icebox," in the words of Karen Crouse of The New York Times. The passage of greatness goes from Nicklaus to Watson to Woods, and Woods, Watson feels, has stained the game.

Watson is the last great player voice representing the golf establishment in the game today. (Nicklaus and Palmer had that voice before him. Davis Love III would have it today, if his game got him in to more press tents.) When Watson talks, he's really talking about the game first and his own game second. Woods was never built for that even before he ran over a fire hydrant last November, and now there's no chance. Last week, when several players — Woods most notably — complained about the greens, Watson noted that in '72 "they were black and blue." Golf is lucky to have a player on the scene with a memory and a perspective.

Watson may not be the most huggable guy in the game, and his high-mindedness can be off-putting, but how can you not admire him? You could make the case that he's never been more relevant. In his prime, for a decade beginning in 1975, golf was a back-burner sport. What he did last summer, when he took the lead at the British Open at Turnberry to the 18th hole, then lost a playoff to Stewart Cink, caught the attention of millions of nongolfers and gave rise to the ubiquitous bumper sticker: 59 is the new 39. In February, Watson won a Champions tour event in Hawaii, going head-to-head with one of the most popular and long-driving players in the game, Fred Couples. In April, at the Masters, Watson shot a first-round 67 and finished 18th. He came to Pebble Beach last week with high expectations and his son, Michael, 27, on his bag.

Watson, like Hogan before him, is in his own way a wee ice mon. Back in the day, a personal revelation from him would be that he could read greens with his feet. Watson, grudgingly and in a limited way, has entered the age of sharing. Did you know that Michael popped the question to his longtime girlfriend on the 13th tee at Augusta this year, on the Sunday before the Masters? Yep. Did you know that Michael's first exposure to Pebble came in '82, when Watson won his only U.S. Open and his then wife, Linda, was pregnant with little baby Michael? Also true.

Still, Watson hides hurt, athletic and otherwise, as well as anybody, which is why the Scots love him so. His last major win was in 1983, in the British Open at Royal Birkdale. The next year, when the Open was at St. Andrews, Watson needed a par-par finish to win a record sixth British Open. His second shot on 17, the Road Hole, found the road. He said, "I hit the wrong shot with the wrong club at the wrong time." They don't make quotes like that anymore. He never blamed his caddie, Alfie Fyles, for pushing a two-iron on him. Likewise, Watson never credited Bruce Edwards for his famous chip-in on the 17th hole of the '82 U.S. Open at Pebble. But he loves to tell the story of how his caddie told him to "get it close," and how he one-upped him.

Next month the British Open returns to St. Andrews, where Woods won the Open in 2000 and '05. Watson knows that the Old Course — like Turnberry last year and Augusta National this year and Pebble last week, like any course that's playing fast and firm — is one where he has a chance to beat Tiger Woods and Ryo Ishikawa and maybe even Stewart Cink.

In other sports you get pushed out, but for old golf champions there's always a home and always something to play for. After an opening 78 last week, Watson said, "Tomorrow I'll be playing better golf. It grates on me when I miss the cut. I hate it." He shot a second-round 71 to make the cut on the number.

Then came a third-round 70. Only five players shot lower scores on Saturday. Through three rounds he was in 16th place. On Sunday he was trying to get himself into the top 10, which would earn him a spot in next year's U.S. Open at Congressional. One of Watson's heroes is Sam Snead, "who could play golf, really play, through age 78," Watson has often said.

On Sunday, you know Watson was thinking of his father, Ray, who first brought him to Pebble as a teenager in the '60s. You know he was thinking about the trips he made to Pebble in the '70s, when he was studying psychology in college. You know he was thinking about Bruce and their U.S. Open win in '82. You know he was thinking about the many AT&T Pro-Ams he has played at Pebble with Sandy Tatum, the former USGA president, right through the '90s. You know he was thinking about the second-place finish he and Michael had as pro-am partners at the AT&T in 2007.

When Watson learned that the U.S. Open is returning to Pebble he said, "Twenty-nineteen at Pebble? That's cool." He'll be 69 then. Maybe he'll be back. "How long will I play? I hope it's a long time. I'm a golfer. That's what I am, plain and simple."

His friend Tatum, 89 years old now, followed Watson around last week. Heading back to his hotel on Saturday night, driving past Cypress Point, Tatum said, "Good thing Watson's not in the car — he'd want to play nine now." It was pitch-black.

When Watson and Michael — father and son, pro and am — came up 18 on Sunday afternoon, the top 10 dream was long over. Watson was holding back tears the last 200 yards as he closed with a par to a standing ovation. His Sunday 76 left him in 29th place. At age 60. And he didn't even play well. Amazing. He threw his ball into Stillwater Cove and came in and talked to the press, just as he always has.

Watson showed more emotion last week than he ever has in public. He's not going to spell out to you what he was feeling. You can figure that out for yourself. He knows what you know. That the passage of time is painful. That he and Jack will never go at it again. That his father is dead. That Bruce is dead. That Michael's all grown up. That holes 1 through 15 of his life are in the rearview mirror. That as a golfer he's not what he once was. "It's sad," he said. "I'm sad."

Golf's wistful, and life is too. He wouldn't want it any other way. Would you?

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