Tom Watson's first win at Augusta sparked his tour dominance
Tom Watson will be the last of the stars from his era to say farewell to the Masters Tournament as a player this week.
Just don’t remind him of that.
“You’re making me feel old,” said the 66-year-old two-time champion, who will be playing in his 43rd Masters, ninth on the all-time career list of starts.
Despite his protest about age, Watson will be the only player in the 80th Masters born in the 1940s, the only one in his 60s and the oldest player by eight years.
Watson is the only current competitor who began his Masters career when co-founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts were both alive. Watson, an eight-time major champion, began in 1970 as an amateur.
“That’s a gap where you’re not going to have these guys playing there,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North, one of Watson’s closest friends. “The next group after Tom were the Normans and Prices and they didn’t win the Masters (and earn a lifetime invitation) so they’re gone already.”
Though Watson is best known for dominating the British Open – he won the claret jug five times in a nine-year span – his first win at Augusta National kick-started his run of dominance on the PGA Tour.
“Winning the Masters was the highlight of my career,” he says now.
Watson won 33 times on the PGA Tour from 1977 through 1984, including seven majors.
That stretch might not have been possible without his first Masters win. Though Watson had won the British Open in 1975, there were still doubts that he could hold a Sunday lead.
In the weeks heading into the 1977 Masters, he blew 54-hole leads at the Tournament Players Championship and Hilton Head Island, S.C.
“They called me a choker, which didn’t set very well with me,” Watson says now.
“It was a tough time for him,” said Joe Posnanski, who started writing about Watson in 1996 for the golfer’s hometown newspaper, the Kansas City Star. Posnanski’s book The Secret of Golf, about the rivalry and friendship between Watson and Jack Nicklaus, was released last year.
“There was a lot of skepticism about him in the U.S. that never really existed in Scotland,” Posnanski said.
Watson proved them wrong at Augusta National in 1977 by closing with 67, which included an 18-foot downhill birdie putt on No. 17, to beat Nicklaus (66 with a bogey on the 72nd hole) by two shots.
It also set in motion what would happen in the famed Duel in the Sun with Nicklaus three months later in the British Open at Turnberry.
“When I won and beat Jack (in the Masters) the way I did, I knew I could do it under the most extreme pressure,” Watson said. “It definitely had something to do with winning at Turnberry. That (winning the 1977 Masters) was when I knew I could play with the big boys.”
At Turnberry, Watson and Nicklaus staged an epic battle. Both opened with 68-70-65 and were tied for the lead entering the final round. Watson closed with 65 to Nicklaus’ 66, leaving the field behind. The third-place finisher was Hubert Green, 11 shots back.
Watson’s other Masters victory, in 1981, also came at Nicklaus’ expense. In the first Masters played on bentgrass greens, Watson opened with 71-68-70 and led Nicklaus by a shot after the Golden Bear stumbled to 75 in the third round. Watson closed with 71 while Nicklaus got off to a slow start and finished tied for second after 72.
“It is better the second time around,” Watson said at the time. “It is indescribably delicious. It was more of a fight with myself this time.”
Said Nicklaus: “He doesn’t like to lose. That’s reflected in his putting. He makes them when he has to.”
Watson had plenty of chances to add to his Masters trophy collection. From 1982 to 1988, he was never out of the top 10, and was second in 1984. He tied for third in 1991.
“You go back and look at his record and there’s a stretch where he could have won every year for six or seven years in there,” North said. “You see guys who have stretches there where the golf course fits them so well. They talk about Tiger (Woods) and his length. Well, Tom had that same kind of length there and overpowered the golf course at times because he could carry the ball in the air a long ways and he was an exceptional putter. It really fit his game when he was at his best.”
WATSON HAS SEEN, and been a catalyst, for several major changes to Augusta National during his Masters career, such as:
• The introduction of bentgrass greens in 1981
• The softening of some slopes on those greens because of their increased speed
• The lifting of the ban on non-Augusta National caddies in 1983
• The lengthening of the course, which started in 2002
Watson was among the players calling for softening the slopes on greens such as No. 9 and 18 for the 1982 Masters because of the new, faster greens the previous year. That year, Mark Hayes four-putted No. 18 from the top tier of the green, where the pin was cut.
Watson also pushed for dropping the ban on non-Augusta National caddies during the 1982 Masters, a change that took place the following year.
“I said, ‘This is a major tournament and we should have the caddie who caddied for us the entire year,’” Watson said. “We depended on them. It wasn’t right not to be able to have them.”
The change came too late for Watson’s longtime caddie Bruce Edwards to be part of the 1977 and 1981 wins, but he was on the bag for the next 20 years (1983-2003) before dying on the eve on the 2004 Masters from Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The last major change – adding length to the course – combined with what he calls “my declining skills,” is the reason Watson is bowing out.
When he won the Masters, the course measured 7,000 yards. After renovations in 2002 and 2006, it’s now 7,435 yards.
“That why I’m hanging it up this year,” Watson said. “I can’t hit lofted-enough shots into the greens. I’m spinning my wheels. It’s too big for me.”
The yardage was added to keep up with golf club and ball technology that made the ball travel farther.
“The length (to the course) was necessary,” Watson said.
He last made the cut in 2010 and has broken par only once since then. That came in the first round last year when Watson shot 1-under-par 71, making him the oldest player to break par in Masters history.
“At my age, that’s a minor miracle,” Watson said afterward. “It’s fun to be able to at least be in red figures at Augusta National.”
His round thrilled his caddie.
“It just blew me away that he did that at age 65,” said Watson’s caddie and longtime friend, Neil Oxman. Watson shot 81 the next day and missed the cut by six shots.
“It’s beyond my capability to play that course for four rounds and compete for the championship,” Watson said recently. “Over the course of four rounds, my chances are slim. I’m not there to just walk around the golf course. I don’t have any joy in that.”
WATSON IS NOT RETIRING from competitive golf, just the Masters. He has 14 victories on the PGA Tour Champions, and he shot under his age in the second round of the season opener this year with 65, finishing in a tie for 11th place.
The week after last year’s Masters, Watson played in the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage and made the cut by making birdie on the final hole of the second round.
In 2009 at age 59, Watson lost the British Open in a playoff. He needed par on the 72nd hole, but he made bogey and lost a playoff that would have made him the oldest player by 11 years to win a major championship.
“He still has an awful lot of game,” North said. “He’s still very competitive. It kills him when he doesn’t play the way he wants to. But all great players are that way.”
On the Champions tour, Watson might follow in the footsteps of Sam Snead, a three-time Masters winner who played at a high level into his 70s. Snead is the oldest PGA Tour winner at age 52 and the oldest to make a cut at 67.
“Already, what he’s done is very Snead-like,” Oxman said.
For his part, Watson said he marveled at Snead’s longevity.
“It was amazing how he played in his mid-70s,” Watson said. “I loved how solid he hit the ball and his rhythm. When he came to the range, I stopped what I was doing and went over to watch him and I learned from it. Same with Byron Nelson. I couldn’t carry his or Snead’s shoes. They played at a level that I could never reach.”
Former USGA president Sandy Tatum, one of Watson’s closest friends for more than four decades, can see Watson thriving in senior events into his 70s.
“He created for himself a golf swing that was absolutely out of this world,” said Tatum, who is now 95. “It’s wonderful. He’s in his 60s and still has got that golf swing. And he has more than a love affair – it’s a passion – to play the game.”
“To me, he was a consummate golfer,” Tatum said. “I played with him for more than 40 years (as an amateur) at Pebble Beach (in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am). Playing with Tom is one of the most satisfying times I’ve had in my life.”
Their friendship goes beyond golf.
“Golf,” Tatum told Sports Illustrated in 1998, “to me is a way of relating to nature and relating to yourself and dealing with an endless challenge that is totally engaging. When you find somebody else who feels that way about golf, it’s like discovering a soul mate, and that’s exactly what I have in Tom.”
Watson’s departure from the majors has turned the focus more on his hall-of-fame career that produced 39 PGA Tour wins, and away from the 2014 Ryder Cup, which didn’t end well for the U.S. team or Watson. He was criticized for some of the strategic moves he made (and didn’t make) as captain as the Americans lost to Europe 16½ to 11½.
“I didn’t think it was a great idea,” Posnanski said of Watson being named captain. “He views it (the Ryder Cup) differently than they (the players) do. It’s not an exhibition to him. He wants to win. Plus, they had the lesser team – they weren’t as good as Europe.”
IF HE DOESN’T MAKE the cut this week, Friday’s round will be the 134th and final round of Watson’s career.
“It’s going to be more emotional for him at Augusta than he thinks it will be,” Posnanski said.
It might happen when he walks across the Hogan Bridge (on No. 12) and the Nelson Bridge (No. 13) for the final time, or if he thinks about the final-round birdie he made on the 17th hole in 1977 that helped him beat Nicklaus.
He’ll have plenty of memories to reflect upon.
“It’s about the people and players I have associated with and played against, and the fact I was able to take my dad and play golf there,” Watson said. “The Champions Dinner has been the highlight of the week. To see the generation (of champions), especially in the early years, guys you looked up to and read their histories. I’m glad I created some memories of my own. When you roll all this up into a great big album, it makes for a pleasurable and great run.”
Watson is downplaying the difference between his final British Open and final Masters, saying “there’s not going to be any difference” other than the locations and his history at the two tournaments.
It was at St. Andrews last year that Watson announced 2016 would be his final Masters.
“Over the years, I’ve made my share of wrong decisions, but do I have regrets? The only regret I have is that it’s the end,” he said then. “It really is. It’s the end. It’s 40 years. It’s the end. And I regret I don’t have the tools in the toolbox to be able to continue on.
“It’s a little bit like death,” he added. “The finality of the end is here. But what tempers that very much are the memories and the people I’ve met along the way.”
TOM WATSON'S MAJOR ACHIEVEMENTS:
1977 MASTERS: Not many golfers got the best of Jack Nicklaus in their careers – much less in majors – but Tom Watson seemed to make a habit of it. The trend began in the 1977 Masters, where Watson held off the Golden Bear’s charge. Nicklaus birdied seven of the first 15 holes, but Watson responded with a 20-foot birdie on the 17th hole for some breathing room, and Nicklaus, playing in the group ahead, made bogey on the final hole to finish two shots behind.
1981 MASTERS: Just before the 1981 Masters, Augusta National’s greens were converted from bermuda to bentgrass. Jack Nicklaus set the pace at the midway point after rounds of 70 and 65. Tom Watson stayed within striking distance, and when Nicklaus stumbled to 75 in the third round, Watson slipped ahead with 70. In the final round, it was Johnny Miller who put up the biggest challenge to Watson. His 68 brought him to within two shots. Nicklaus could do no better than even-par 72. Watson shot 1-under 71 for a two-shot win over Nicklaus and Miller.