LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Tom Watson shot a 1-over-par 72 in the first round of the 96th PGA Championship at Valhalla on Thursday. It wasn’t that he was nervous — he played in his first PGA Championship 41 years ago. This is his 33rd start in this major. Nor was the problem that Watson is 64, his game having outlasted nearly everyone else of his generation or thereabouts. The only Palmer in the field here is Ryan Palmer, who shot a 6-under 65 to tie for the lead with Kevin Chappell and Lee Westwood. The only Norman in the field here is teaching pro Brian Norman.
The problem wasn’t that Watson was appreciably shorter off the tee than his much younger playing partners, Sergio Garcia (71) and Watson’s newly appointed Ryder Cup Vice-Captain Steve Stricker (69). Granted, Watson hit a lot of drivers while Garcia and Stricker hit 3-woods, but on other holes, like the 210-yard, par-3 11th, and the 350-yard, par-4 13th, he hit iron off the tee, just as they did. He’s playing the same game, more or less.
No, the only problem for Watson on Thursday was that, as he said after his round, “I couldn’t get enough air under my ball.” Valhalla’s pins were tucked five paces from the edges on many holes, although Rickie Fowler (69) said it sometimes seemed like fewer than five. That meant players had to bring in their approach shots as if they’d been dropped out of the Goodyear Blimp, and that’s no longer part of his arsenal.
Still, Thursday provided yet another revealing look at his incredible longevity. Among the players Watson bettered in the first round was Tiger Woods (74), yes, but the ageless Watson also beat major champions Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell and Webb Simpson (all shot 73), Keegan Bradley (74) and a whole lot of other players, some of whom weren’t even born yet when Watson tied for second at the 1978 PGA, losing a playoff to John Mahaffey. Amazingly, that’s as close as Watson — he of the 39 Tour wins and 14 Champions Tour victories — ever came to winning the PGA.
It was a mostly cloudy day at Valhalla, which kept the heat at bay, a good thing for Watson. When he finished his round, missing a 10-foot birdie try at the par-5 18th hole, he noticed a clot of orange-clad boys behind the green and wound up with his right arm as if he were a softball pitcher. He released a ground ball into the orange scrum, and smiled as the boys dog-piled on top of one another in hopes of scavenging a souvenir.
Watson — who is some 30 years past his prime, whom some derided as too old to be a Ryder Cup captain — was still mixing it up with the greatest players in the game. He was still relevant. In retrospect, maybe that’s what he was grinning about as he walked off the 18th green. Everyone else was.