Lynch: With another win at Augusta, Tom Watson eager to get back in the saddle

Two-time Masters champion Tom Watson, right, gets a fist bump from six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus after sinking a birdie putt on the fourth hole during the Par-3 Contest at the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., Wednesday, April 4, 2018. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP) Curtis Compton/Associated Press

Lynch: With another win at Augusta, Tom Watson eager to get back in the saddle

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Lynch: With another win at Augusta, Tom Watson eager to get back in the saddle

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Augusta National has a way of rolling back the years. Yesterday it felt like the late ‘70s with the names Nicklaus, Player and Watson atop the leaderboard. Who cares if it was Wednesday instead of Sunday, and the Par 3 Contest instead of the Masters?

For a time, it didn’t feel much different to Watson.

“After six holes Jack was 4-under, I was 4-under and Gary was 3-under,” he said. “I talked to Gary today and I said, ‘Hey I saw your face. You had your game face on.’ And he said, ‘Yeah!’ We’re trying to beat each other. It rekindled some old fire in all of us. We’re still competitors.”

At the age of 68, Watson posted 6-under to win the Par 3 Contest for the second time (1982). That gives him four titles at Augusta National, two of which came with green jackets. But as much as the old warrior enjoyed the tussle, Watson had left the misty-eyed sentimentality behind by the time he was asked Thursday if he missed competing here.

Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson shake hands after playing together during the par three competition at the Masters golf tournament Wednesday, April 4, 2018, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson wowed the Augusta crowd in the Par 3 Contest. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

“No, I can’t compete here. I’m a realist,” he said firmly. “I can’t compete on the golf course because I don’t hit the ball far enough.”

Could he still offer a respectable showing in the right conditions at an Open Championship, where he won five times?

“No. My last Open at St. Andrews kind of convinced me of that as well. There’s still length issues I have even on links courses. I’m too much behind the eight ball starting out.”

If not a competitor in the majors, perhaps then an honorary starter, now a two-man affair since the death of Arnold Palmer.

“I’m not in the same league as these two guys, as Player and Nicklaus,” said a man with eight major wins, dismissing the question with modesty if not accuracy. I suggested it would come as a relief to the hyper-competitive Player that he won’t be joined by a youngster who could fly it past him.

“I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” Watson said with a chuckle.

With Thursday’s morning ceremony over, I asked Watson who he thinks will be center stage approaching Sunday’s ceremony.

“I think (Henrik) Stenson is going to be there. And Marc Leishman,” he said. “There’s so many stories. With the aura of Tiger (Woods) over everything. Bubba Watson. (Phil) Mickelson winning. Rory (McIlroy) winning.”

For all the changes over the decades, Watson still believes Augusta National asks the same questions of players it did back in his victory years of 1977 and 1981.

“The ball goes straighter now so you don’t curve the ball as much but it still requires you to shape your shots,” the veteran explained. “It’s a golf course where hooking the ball for a right hander off the tee is still important and fading the ball into the greens is important. You have to do both.”

Watson first came to Augusta National as an amateur in 1970. He finished in the top 3 six times, 15 in the top 10. But his fondest memory didn’t come during the tournament.

“I remember having an opportunity to play with Gene Sarazen and my dad,” he said. “That was a great experience.”

Tom Watson, winner of the Masters Golf Tournament, receives the traditional green coat from last year's champion Ray Floyd at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., April 10, 1977. (AP Photo)

Tom Watson got his green jacket from Ray Floyd at Augusta National in 1977. (AP Photo)

But like every man with ample tours of duty at the Masters, a few scars were collected along the way.

“The 4-wood I hit off the tee on 18 in ‘78 when Gary won,” he said. “The missed putt in ‘79 in the playoff. I had a short birdie putt on the first playoff hole. I hit a lousy putt.”

Four decades on he recalls it with almost painful clarity and a wane smile.

“They’re the shots I wish I had back,” he said.

As the Par 3 event proved, Watson still has a heart for challenges. But the only saddle he’s interested in climbing back into is a literal one—his new passion is cutting horses, an equestrian competition where man and beast work together before judges to demonstrate the horse’s athleticism and ability to herd cattle. He adopted it from his wife, Hilary, who is recovering from a bout with cancer. A day after he won the Par 3, Hilary was competing in a cutting event in Fort Worth, and you get the impression Watson is more eager to see scores from Texas than Augusta.

“She’ll be competing more than I will on the tour,” he said. “My goal is to compete as much as she is in the cutting horse world. I’m about a 22 handicap when it comes to riding a horse right now. She’s about a one or two. I’m just a rank amateur. It started watching my wife compete. I said I’ve got to do this. I don’t want to sit on my butt watching.”

He flashes that famous gap-toothed grin, one barely dimmed since he first came here almost a half-century ago.

“I’m a competitor,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to do now.”

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