He speaks of “not having the tools in the toolbox I used to have,” but somehow, Tom Watson still manages to make do. Now here he is, at age 65, on the precipice of yet another amazing accomplishment.
With one round to go in the U.S. Senior Open, Watson is just one shot off the lead. Bernhard Langer, who has established himself as one of the best Champions Tour players ever, and Jeff Maggert stand in front of him, and seven other players, including Champions Tour stalwarts Kenny Perry and Colin Montgomerie, are tied with him, so nothing is likely to come easy for Watson at Del Paso Country Club in Sacramento.
But Watson has never shied away from challenges. Anybody else old enough to remember when he had the reputation of being a choker? That ugly tag came courtesy of his not being able to close after holding the 54-hole lead in the 1974 U.S. Open (the infamous “Massacre at Winged Foot”) and the 36-hole lead in the 1975 U.S. Open at Medinah, where he shot 67-68 on Thursday and Friday, 78-77 on Saturday and Sunday.
Watson put that image to rest when he broke through to win his first major, the 1975 Open Championship, where he beat Australian Jack Newton in an 18-hole playoff at Carnoustie. It was the first of Watson’s eight majors, which ranks sixth on the all-time list, and five Open Championships, which makes him one of four runners-up to Harry Vardon’s six titles. Watson birdied the 72nd hole to force the playoff, then benefited the following day when Newton bogeyed the final hole to lose by a stroke.
Watson will be best remembered, of course, for his “Duel in the Sun” victory over Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977. Both golfers went 68-70 in the first two rounds. Nicklaus turned up the heat in the final two, going 65-66. It wasn’t enough. Watson went 65-65.
As hard as that major was to top, Watson almost did just that 32 years later at the same course. At the age of 59, he tied for the lead after 72 holes with Stewart Cink. Had he been able to get up and down for par after his second shot went over the 72nd green, he would have had his sixth Open Championship title. That miss seemed to deflate him. In the four-hole playoff that followed – his 1975 Open victory was the Championship’s final 18-hole playoff – he lost to Cink by six strokes.
Now Watson is looking ahead to his final Open Championship, next month at St. Andrews. He has won the Open on five different courses, but never at the home of golf. He shared the 54-hole lead in 1978, but closed with a 78. In 1984 he was tied for the lead with two holes to play, but bogeyed the 17th and lost as Seve Ballesteros birdied the 18th.
But first, there’s this little matter of the U.S. Senior Open. It’s a title Watson has never won. If he does, he would become the oldest winner of the event, the oldest to win a senior major and the oldest to win on the Champions Tour.
He’s not thinking in those terms, though.
''To hit a shot under pressure that's really a good golf shot is why I'm out here,'' he told reporters on Friday. ''That's what I like to do. And when I get to the point where I can't do it or I can't do it often enough to really satisfy myself, then I won't be out here.''
Those of us who love the game, who love to watch the game’s greats, are fortunate that day has not yet arrived.