Tour and News

A transformed Watson carries Turnberry magic to opening round at Augusta

Photo: Robert Beck/SI

Tom Watson's near miss at the 2009 British Open was amazing. Is the Masters at 60 really a possibility?

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tom Watson finally seems at peace. Over the years, I have probably written more than 100,000 words about Watson — the good fortune of being a sportswriter in Kansas City for a long time. I have chased him from golf course to golf course. I have seen him overjoyed and grumpy and most places in between. Anyway, I never thought of him being at peace before.

No, there was always a certain restlessness about Watson. I always thought it had something to do with the strange arc of his brilliant career. Watson was a late bloomer — he was not an especially good golfer at Stanford. He jumped on the PGA Tour, and he tore up his swing again and again as a young man. He never felt like he could hit the ball straight enough to compete with the best.

Then he found a swing that worked well enough, and for an eight-year stretch, 1977-1984, he was about as good as anybody, ever. He won seven major championships and 33 tournaments and six PGA Tour player of the Year awards, and three times he beat Jack Nicklaus, head-to-head, in one of the biggest tournaments in the world. It wasn't the swing that won tournaments for him, incidentally. It was his creativity around the greens, and his intense competitive nature, and one other thing: Watson was the boldest putter on earth. He slammed putt after putt at the hole because he knew, deeply knew, that if he missed he would make the putt coming back.

Then, just as quickly as it started, his dominance ended at age 35. He won just one tournament in the next 11 years, and he never won another major. The funny part is that he truly believes he did not learn how to really swing a golf club until after his dominance ended. He learned what he, like Ben Hogan, sometimes calls "The Secret." But by then, secret or no, those four-foot putts would no longer drop for him.

Because of that weird career narrative, I think Watson tends to get overlooked in the grand discussion of golf. When you hear people talk about the Golfing House of Lords — the greatest of the greats — they will usually throw out five names: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Bobby Jones.

Then, there is a second group — a Golfing House of Commons, if you will — which will include Gary Player and Walter Hagen and Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen and Byron Nelson and, maybe, Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino and Seve Ballesteros and some others. This is where Tom Watson's name fits for people, but to be honest, people sometimes forget to put him here too. Watson's career was so odd, and his posture so Midwestern modest, that he has been easy to overlook. It is like he's golf's Stan Musial, another star of the heartland. Their greatness tends to get lost in the back of people's minds. When you bring them up, people will often say: "Oh yeah!"

But Watson is more than an "Oh Yeah" in golfing history. He belongs in Golf's House of Lords. He's one of the handful of greatest golfers to ever play this game. Take Thursday. This wasn't his day. Everybody understood, coming in, that Thursday belonged to Tiger Woods, playing in his first golf tournament since an all-encompassing sex scandal rocked his world and energized tabloid journalism. And The Tiger Woods Show sparkled. There would be planes flying Tiger-mocking banners overhead. There would be massive crowds cheering and holding back cheers. There would be ominous skies, two Tiger Woods eagles, howling wind, a few missed putts, Tiger's stirring round of 68 and a tornado watch, too.

There were other stories too on this great day — Fred Couples' sockless 66, Phil Mickelson's return to the top of the leaderboard and so on. And so, yet again, it was easy to overlook Tom Watson. All he did was shoot a bogey-free 67 at age 60. It matched the best Masters score of Watson's career. He shot 67 on Sunday in 1977, when he beat Nicklaus. He shot 67 in 1990, when he was trying desperately to find stuff that worked. And he shot 67 Thursday, when he was the oldest player in the field and he had his son Michael as caddie.

"Where would you place this in the best rounds you've played," he was asked.

"Tied for first," Watson said. "It's all about the score."

Only, maybe, this was about more than the score. I once asked Watson to tell me something about himself that would surprise me. He told me that he did not like playing golf on sunny days. It bored him. He craved wind. He needed a challenge. He longed for dare-to-be-great situations. When he first turned 50, he had mixed feelings about playing on the Senior Tour; he loved being around his old friends but he did not have the same feeling playing those tournaments. Trouble is, then he would come to Augusta and feel dwarfed by the course that he had once dominated. He missed 11 of 12 cuts. "I can't play here," he told us again and again. No, Watson did not seem happy at all to be growing older.

But, lately, something has changed. Maybe it was Turnberry. Watson, of course, created the golf story of 2009 when he went to Turnberry and played his heart out and came to the 18th hole needing only par to win the British Open at 59. He hit his second shot too flush, missed his par putt, and lost in a playoff. For a while, he saw that tournament as a failure. He did not win, and as everybody knows the whole point is winning.

But what he found was that other people did not see it that way at all. Watson had played miraculous golf. He had showed the fullness of his brilliance to a younger generation that was not old enough to know. He had reminded his own generation that, yes, he won those five British Opens, and yes he won those two Masters, and yes he chipped in at Pebble Beach, and yes he beat Nicklaus at Turnberry in what is surely the greatest man-to-man duel in golf history. Maybe he did not have the charisma of Palmer (who does?), and maybe he did not quite hit the heights of Nicklaus (who has?), and maybe he did not play with the ruthless precision of Tiger Woods (who could?).

But maybe none of them played with Watson's imagination, his ability to turn bad shots into good, his sturdiness in the howling wind.

Anyway, people kept coming up to Watson after Turnberry and saying: "Hey, you reminded me that I'm not too old." And that had a powerful effect on Watson. He had a purpose again. "There was a glow after Turnberry," is how he put it. He felt something close to reborn.

This week, he has been joyous. Two months ago, Tom asked his son Michael to come to the Masters with him . . . and Michael called back to say that he wanted to use the tournament as a chance to propose to his girlfriend Beth Lindquist. "Well, it's about time," Tom told him, sounding so much like the father.

So Sunday, they worked out a whole deal where the Augusta National photographer would just happen to be out there taking pictures, and Michael would hook a shot into the woods, and Beth would follow and so on. The golf stuff didn't work out precisely ("I choked," Michael would say), but finally Michael hit a shot off a tree, and Tom asked if anyone saw it, and Beth said that she did. There was the setup. She walked over to help Michael find the ball, and that's when he dropped to one knee and held out the ring. Tom re-enacted the scene Thursday, complete with Beth's 10-second shock delay and the affirmation and the tears that fell.

Thursday, Watson showed up to watch Arnie and Jack hit the honorary tee shots. There has always been a beautiful mathematical symmetry for those three — Palmer is 80, Nicklaus 70, Watson 60*. "I just wanted to see my friends," Watson would say.

*And if you want to take it one more, Fred Couples is 50.

Then, he went out to play himself, and Michael, serving as caddie, said: "Dad, show me you can still play this course." It was a very Missouri thing to say. That's what Tom wanted, a challenge. Tom wanted to show him. Michael has never seen his father win a major championship. "What happened today," Tom would say after the round, "was mostly because of Michael."

What happened was that Tom Watson played a remarkable round of golf. He caught some breaks, sure. He hit his shot short and right of the bunker on No. 12 ... and it stayed up. He hit the ball into the water on No. 13 but made a great chip and saved par. His long putt at No. 15 might have raced 10 or 15 feet past the hole . . . if the hole not gotten in the way. But he also hit magnificent drives, and he putted solidly all day, and he hit a few of his magical shots around the green.

Watson doesn't know if he can keep it up. He has long believed that, in the right conditions, he could win another British Open. And that almost happened last year. He has long believed that if the U.S. Open situation was just right, he might win one of those. But he has also long believed that Augusta National, as it now plays, is too long for him. The tees were up Thursday. The flags were in happy places. That won't be the case the rest of the week.

"I don't know, maybe I've been too negative," Watson says. "I think I can still play this golf course."

Well, for a day, he played it about as well as anybody in the world. And he seemed happy, really happy. You know, at the end of the month, there will be a Watson golf video released. It is called "Lessons of a Lifetime." In it, he gives 44 lessons — "basically, everything I've learned about golf." And then, because he is Midwestern modest, he quickly says that most of the lessons in there are things he learned from other people, wisdom passed down through the years, and so on.

"But," he said, "there are a couple of new things in there."

"Like what?" I asked.

"I'm not going to tell you that," he snapped, and he smiled. "But there are a couple of new things."

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