Even at 60, Watson can’t be counted out
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Proposal for a new Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match: Tom Watson vs. Father Time.
Then again, that one might turn out to be pretty one-sided.
The man who nearly pulled off one of sports’ most improbable feats at Turnberry during last summer’s British Open was at it again Thursday at the Masters, winding back the clock with an opening 5-under 67.
One might dismiss it as one of those sentimental, throwback Masters stories that tend to bloom like the azaleas on Thursday of Masters week, a nice little tale that runs for 24 hours and fades away with so many ghosts of this storied place. But on the heels of what Watson did last summer in Scotland, losing in a playoff, at the very least his Thursday effort raised an eyebrow or two.
“After what he did at the British Open, we have to believe he could keep this up,” Phil Mickelson said.
Can you imagine a 60-year-old being a factor at the Masters? Almost unfathomable. Watson trying to stick near the top of this star-filled leaderboard is going to be a pretty Herculean task. A 59-year-old golfer with a rebuilt left hip negotiating and plotting his way around the links at Turnberry is one thing; a 60-year-old man competing against the young guns in the giant ballpark that is Augusta National Golf Club is something of a far different hue.
It was only one round, but enough to allow Watson to enjoy the day and flash that trademark, gap-toothed, Huck Finn grin as the galleries applauded him so warmly. And enough for his 27-year-old son, Michael, who is on the bag this week, to ponder if bigger things might not be in store amid these rolling hills and 10-story pines that can produce magic almost on command.
“We have three more days, and we came here to accomplish something great,” said the younger Watson, who, regardless of how his dad does, already has had a memorable week. Michael proposed to his girlfriend, Beth Lindquist, on Augusta National’s 13th hole while playing golf with his dad on Sunday.
She said yes. The rest of this week is gravy.
Tom Watson wasn’t the only AARP card-carrier making lots of noise on Thursday, a day that opened with 80-year-old Arnold Palmer and 70-year-old Jack Nicklaus sharing the tee for ceremonial opening shots as thick dew frosted the lush green fairways. Bernhard Langer (52) made his way onto the leaderboard early, Sandy Lyle (52) broke 70 for the first time since 1992, and the red-hot Fred Couples stayed red hot, shooting 66.
Should one of these men win, next year’s traditional Champions Dinner might be the 5 p.m. Early Bird special at Ponderosa.
Couples’ round was good news for Peter Jacobsen, who is on hand this week at Augusta National purely as a spectator. Jake drafted Couples in his Masters pool. Hey, why not? Couples has been going low, regardless of the tour he’s been playing on. Likewise, Jacobsen said Watson’s great round did not surprise him in the least.
“Tom Watson is one of those legendary types who really is ageless,” said Jacobsen. “He may be 60, but he plays like a 30-year-old.
“Sometimes you take it for granted what you do in this game in your 20s and 30s,” he added. “You don’t get to measure your passion until your late 40s and 50s. I think he (Watson) loves the game a lot more now. And when you love the game of golf it motivates you.
“Tom is a lot better than he realizes.”
At the Masters, experience is a valuable arrow to carry in one’s quiver. Watson, who captured green jackets in 1977 and 1981, has experience in spades. He knows sometimes it’s not where you hit a shot, but where you miss if you don’t pull it off. From the ninth through 14th holes on Thursday, Watson missed every green yet kept scrambling to make pars. A man who has had a rocky relationship with the putter for years, he used it only 24 times in the opening round.
“I think that’s what experience is all about,” Lee Westwood said. “I think that’s why you see Tom up there, Bernhard Langer up there, people that have played well here in the past, and you get repeat winners, because it is a golf course that requires a lot of concentration and focus. You can’t let your guard down for a second.”
Watson, making his way around Augusta National in his 37th Masters, knows that as well as anyone. He knows Thursdays are a long, long way from Sundays, and that his iron game needs to get sharper unless he plans to keep pouring in lots of 30-footers the next three days.
He also knows as well as anyone that beautiful Augusta National, the one set up so scoring-friendly on Thursday, can turn on you in a second. It lurks around the corner like a bully who wants your lunch money.
“It doesn’t matter what it is right now,” Watson said of his score, which matched his lowest round at Augusta. “It matters on Sunday. That’s all that matters.
“The beautiful thing about this golf course is that there’s a tragedy awaiting you just about on every hole. It’s always there. And you always know it. And that’s what can happen here.
“It’s never over.”