AUGUSTA, Ga.—The wind was blowing straight out of the press building to the bleachers behind the practice tee. This was on Friday, in the glare of midafternoon. A lone player was on the range, stretching his muscular frame this way and that. Displayed on a manual leader board, amid the bowing loblollies and just beyond the caddie clubhouse, were the names of various red-numbered golfers representing all the popular demographic groups: Rickie Fowler, a twentysomething; Will McGirt, a thirtysomething; Charley Hoffman, a fortysomething; Fred Couples, a fiftysomething. And there on the range was a man with more major victories than the entire leader board put together: Tom Watson, 67.
For the first time since 1975, Watson is not playing in the tournament that defined his life, at least on this side of the Atlantic. But being a two-time Masters champion has its privileges, and one of them is all-week access to the driving range. The morning was too cold, even for Watson, but now it was in the mid-50s or a little warmer. Fifty-eight, let’s call it, and blowing.
Watson was never one to linger between shots, and he was hitting one 3-iron after another. Pure pick—no divot. A swing so on plane it would have left Hogan smiling. Bam, bam, bam, bam. Left-heel fade shots that went maybe 170 yards. Right-heel trap draws that went 185. Bam, bam, bam, bam. A swing (it’s been said many times) that will not quit. A dozen, maybe 15 spectators, watched. A master at work, preparing for next week.
Next week: a senior event down the road in suburban Atlanta called the Mitsubishi Electric Classic, at TPC Sugarloaf. Fifty-four holes, no cut, guaranteed paycheck. Quarter horses, one of Watson’s hobbies, are expensive, plus he still enjoys competition of various kinds. (He has six senior majors.) He shows cutting horses professionally. A recent second-place finish in a six-person event got him $183.
On the Augusta National tournament range, Watson looked like there was no place he’d rather be, but that of course is a lie. He would have liked to be on the course, a few hundred yards away. He’d like to have been on the leader board. But he stopped playing last year for real and in his mind some years before that. You can’t make cuts at the Masters when 18 is a driver and a wood, and the 1st is about the same. In his prime, Watson played the last with a driver and an 8-iron. Driver and a 5-iron, when he won in ’81, in a brisk wind. He always liked the wind. Growing up in Kansas City will do it.
John Minkley was one of the spectators. He’s been on the 1st tee at Tour events for 40 years, counting clubs and checking ball brands for the Darrell Survey. “To me, Tom is always in the moment,” Minkley said to the guy seated next to him. He got this next bit from a teaching pro and shared it because he said it reminded him of Watson: “If you think about the future, you’ll be anxious. If you think about the past, you’ll be depressed. If you’re thinking about the present, you’ll have peace.” Watching Watson, you couldn’t know what he was thinking, of course. But the shots were coming fast, and the strikes were pure. It looked like peace from the bleachers, anyway.
David Leadbetter, the golf instructor, walked by, watched Watson make some swings, asked him a question or two. Watson seemed in no rush to end the conversation. Leadbetter taught Nick Faldo, Nick Price, Greg Norman, men Watson beat and to whom he lost. Will McGirt walked by, safely in the house at two under par, in striking position, two behind the leaders. They talked for several minutes. “I love this wind!” McGirt said. “I hope it keeps blowing!” Watson knows the feeling well. Charley Hoffman’s caddie, Brett Waldman—a good golfer and, like Watson, a Kansas City native—stopped to say hello. Leadbetter came back with one of his pupils, An Byeong-hun of South Korea, and introduced him to Watson. They talked about the swing and his play: 76-73, his first Masters cut. Is there somebody who could give a new guy better advice?
Watson hit some wedges, some hybrids, some 3-woods, some drivers. His green-and-white Callaway bag was on the ground, staying under the wind. No caddie, no family members, no teacher. Of course not. Just Watson and all that talent and all that experience. A lifetime.
He hit his last ball, returned the few clubs he had hit to their slots, covered the long clubs in his old-school pom-pom headcovers. Now there was a second golfer on the range, Bernd Wiesberger, a tall and slender Austrian. In Watson’s day, few golfers swung like Wiesberger, all upper body, very little lower body. With Watson, the body and the arms cleared. It wasn’t a hit. It was a swing. He walked up to Wiesberger and said, “How’s it going here?” He has not always been the warmest or most outgoing of men. He watched a few swings, signed a few autographs, talked to a club pro. Carrying his own bag, he called it a day. Masters Saturday, Masters Sunday, a locker in the Champions Room. Atlanta, followed by Branson, Mo., for the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf at Big Cedar Lodge. Three hours from home for Watson. Three hours from his horses. Sixtysomething. Still a touring pro.