LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Tom Watson had stood over putts like this pressure-packed 3-footer at the Senior PGA Championship for most of his adult life.
“I didn’t take much time with the putt,” he said with that famous toothy grin. “I took one practice stroke and figured, ‘Let’s get this over with.”’
Watson summoned up some of his old major magic, holing the short birdie putt on the first playoff hole to beat David Eger on Sunday.
The 61-year-old Watson, down a shot with four holes left in regulation, became the oldest player to win a major since the senior tour was created in 1980. He also became the second-oldest winner of the Senior PGA, behind only Jock Hutchison who was 62 in 1947.
“If this is the last tournament I ever win, it’s not a bad one,” Watson said. “I’m kind of on borrowed time out here at 61.”
Watson became the third-oldest winner of a Champions Tour event. The victory came 10 years, 2 days after he won his other Senior PGA Championship at Ridgewood Country Club in 2001.
Watson may be well past his prime, but there have been very few players in history as good at sealing the deal with the outcome teetering on the brink.
Few realize that more than Eger, who worked closely with Watson and the other giants of the game in the 1980s and 1990s as a rules official.
“I watched a lot of Trevino, Watson, Irwin – a lot of great players from the golf cart,” he said. “And I got to really appreciate just how good they were – and they still are.”
Watson closed with a 2-under 70 to finish at 10-under 278 and capture his 14th career major, six since turning 50 to go with five British Opens, two Masters and a U.S. Open.
“Coming into the tournament I really didn’t give myself any chance based on the way I was practicing last week in Kansas City,” he said. “But the light switch went on.”
A club rep pointed out a subtle change in his swing. From there, it was bad news for the rest of the field.
“Lo and behold, I started making good swings again,” he said, as if he were surprised.
Perhaps better known as a rules official than as a player, Eger closed with a 67.
Both Eger and Watson missed short birdie putts on the 72nd green that would have won for either in regulation, Eger pulling a 6-footer and Watson pushing one from 4 feet.
Watson went for the green with his rescue-club second shot on the playoff hole, the 18th, but it came up short and in the deep and gaping bunker that fronts the green.
“If it went into the bunker, that was just where I wanted to be,” he said.
Eger caught a bad break when his drive came to rest in a grassy finger on the edge of a large bunker along the left side of the fairway. He hit a layup and then a wedge to 10 feet, but missed the birdie attempt.
“I hit a pretty good third shot up there,” Eger said. “I thought I hit a really good putt. It just was not good enough.”
Taking little time after blasting out of the sand to 3 feet, Watson calmly stroked in the winner while the large gallery at Valhalla Golf Club cheered and applauded.
Kiyoshi Murota, who had at least a share of the lead after each of the first three rounds, closed with a 72 and was alone in third, a shot out of the playoff.
He had promised he would play “Murota golf” in the final round.
“I played my Murota golf to the best of my ability,” he said through an interpreter. “However, my putting left something to be desired.”
Five days before he turns 66, four-time Senior PGA winner Hale Irwin had a double bogey and two bogeys in a 73 that left him at 8 under.
Eduardo Romero (68), the benefactor of a lucky bounce off the rocks that turned a bogey into a birdie at the 13th hole, and Peter Senior (69) were at 7 under. Nick Price shot a 72 and finished another stroke back.
The 59-year-old Eger has played the Champions Tour full-time for a decade. But he’s perhaps best known as a top rules official for the PGA Tour and U.S. Golf Association from 1982-95. He never finished better than a tie for fifth in 75 PGA Tour starts between 1979 and 1981. He regained his amateur status and was a three-time Walker Cup player during his days as a golf administrator. Since turning pro at 50, he has won four times on the Champions Tour, including this year’s Liberty Mutual Legends.
The leader changed every few minutes in the final round.
Eger grabbed the top spot by rolling in a short birdie putt at the 15th. But he turned right around and gave it back on the next hole when his approach came up short of the green and he made bogey.
An instant later, Watson stroked in an 18-footer for birdie from the first cut behind the 15th green to go up by a shot.
Eger responded with a 7-foot birdie putt at the uphill 16th to even things up once again.
First Eger and then Watson missed easy birdie putts that would have given them a win, and then they headed for the extra hole.
Watson seemed stupefied to find himself with the crystal trophy and the $360,000 first-place check at the end.
“Wow. Winning again at 61,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t think it’s an age thing but, God, I’ve been out here a long time.”
And he’s been winning all along.