PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — There was a photograph taken of Tom Watson on Sunday, a snapshot of a man honing his craft. He is standing on a large practice green beneath billowing Midwestern clouds, a row of trees behind him, a United States flag high above his right shoulder.
Watson had just won the rain-shortened Tom Watson Challenge at Kansas City Country Club — a local event that means more to Watson than you might think — and he was back out in the practice area, grinding away on a putting green in perfect light for my colleague John Garrity’s Canon camera.
“My second victory of the season,” says Watson, twinning his win at the Watson Challenge with the one at the Champions Tour’s Mitsubishi Electric Championship. “I won by one over [Asian Tour player] Clay Devers. My game’s in pretty good shape.”
When Tom Watson says his game is in pretty good shape these days, you doubt him at your peril, even at age 60, even at the United States Open at Pebble Beach with all these youngsters and all that rough. If Turnberry represents Watson’s golfing soul, Pebble Beach just might be his heart. It is where Watson used to pay $15 in greens fees as a student at Stanford (in subsequent trips, the starter let him on for free). It is where Watson competed in the United States Open for the first time in 1972. And it is where Watson chipped in from the yellowish rough behind the 17th hole to defeat Jack Nicklaus in 1982.
If Watson leaned on smarts and crackling ball-striking to contend at Turnberry, the same skills will aid him at Pebble Beach, whose 7,040-yard layout demands precision more than length. Still, there are spots on the course (namely, the thick rough and quick greens) that will test the strength and nerves of a man 10 years into his career on the senior circuit.
“It’s a lot different than when we played it before — more dangerous,” says Watson, who was given a special exemption into the championship by the USGA. “The fairways are cut right into hazards. No. 6, No. 8, No. 9, for the long hitters, and No. 4. That ball can roll right into the hazards if you get it going sideways.”
Who wins on a golf course like this?
“Pure ball strikers,” says England’s Ian Poulter. “Guys that understand the game probably better than anybody else. They know what it takes to win.”
Poulter was describing Watson, who won five British Opens, two Masters and his United States Open at Pebble with a swing that seemed to get better as the conditions got tougher. At windblown Turnberry last summer, where Tiger Woods missed the cut, Watson kept finding the center of the clubface whether he was in short sleeves or a baby-blue sweater.
The weather at Pebble has been chilly and the course is firm and dry, like so many links courses in the British Isles, and Watson finds himself in the conversation of contenders.
At Augusta National, a course that should have been too big for a man his age, Watson shot 67 in the first round and finished tied for 18th.
“I still feel as if I can play [Pebble Beach],” Watson says. “I’m out there and I’m still trying to figure it out, figure out all these unpredictable lies around the green and the rough. Just as Nicklaus said, I won golf tournaments by out-preparing other people. I prepared better. I knew the yardages, I knew the distances, I played the golf courses a bunch of times.”
Watson is the only player in the field competing in his fifth United States Open at Pebble Beach. The memories are as thick as the morning fog here, memories that will serve him well.
“The nostalgia comes when we get to the 17th tee or the 17th green,” Watson says. “Everybody wants to take a picture. It kind of reminds me of what happened, what occurred here before. It’s pretty sweet. It’s pretty nice.”
It’s why Watson is still grinding, from Kansas City to the Monterey Peninsula and beyond.