It was a couple of years ago, and the occasion was a writers banquet. Tiger had left long before after receiving his award. So had Annika. They should have gone ' there was no reason for them to linger. Two hours of sitting through yet another award, then another, is never easy.
But there was one of the greatest golfers on earth, patiently sitting there with all the common folk. He wasnt being honored for anything, never stood up for any presentation. But he stayed from start to finish, never once noticeably fidgety. He was there solely for one reason ' for a friend named Nick Seitz, who was getting the final award of the night.
I tell this story to dramatize the kind of a person Tom Watson is. No, he isnt particularly warm, not overly friendly ' but when he has a friend, it is a TRUE friend. Watson sat there with all us yokels, neither asking special favors nor being granted any. He came out of respect for his friend Seitz, and that was the only reason.
This week, Watson is in Toledo to play the U.S. Senior Open. It was long ago that he won the first major ' the 75 British Open. Its been a long time since he was among the best putters this game has ever produced. But if true respect is a part of the equation, then Watson gives it to a few friends ' and has gotten it from millions.
Hes 53 years old now and along with his dimished putting is also his penchant for showing up at these tournaments ' hes played about half the time the Champions Tour has gone to the post. He is deep into the work of raising a second family - he married his second wife a few years back and has three stepchildren that are still in school. And he has a caddy, Bruce Edwards, who has Lou Gehrig's disease. Golf is a long way from being the only thing in his life.
He really isnt that old, but last year at the Senior PGA, he addressed the issue. Dont expect to see him launching laser beams at the stick anymore. Oh, he will knock em down on occasion ' witness the recent U.S. Open when he opened with a 65. But it doesnt with near the regularity it used to, back in the late 70s and early 80s. And those silly putts have the dangest habit of avoiding the hole now.
Its called age, he said. Fifty-two years. The wheels are getting rusty. Theyre definitely getting rusty. Sometimes you can put all the oil in there you want, but that rush doesnt go away very easy. The Advil works sometimes and it makes it easier to play and its just one of those facts you have to do.
But this game is easier to understand in some respects. It gets easier the more you know about yourself.
Knowing your limitations, knowing what you can and cant do ' it comes from experience, obviously, to know that, Watson said. And Ive had lots of times when I thought thats an 8-iron shot ' nah, am I trying to fool myself, its a 7-iron shot.
I kind of laugh at myself. I know I cant hit an 8-iron that way. To carry the ball ' hit it out of the rough, I used to ' I was a really good rough player, and I cant hit the ball out of the rough anymore. No clubhead speed. Its not so much technique. Its clubhead speed.
He allowed his mind to wander back through a couple decades, days 25 years ago when he was competing again with Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Gary Player. The young Watson lost a lot, the wiser Watson won a lot. He still plays against them, only nowadays its on a different level.
I dont consider it any different than 20 years ago, said Watson. Were out competing.
When I first came out on the Senior Tour, the one reason Im out here is to compete and enjoy the competition on good golf courses. We have all that here, plus a wonderful pairing. I can assure you that both Jack and Gary will be out trying their damnedest to beat me. And Ill be trying my damnedest to beat them.
One part of Watson's game has not changed ' he still makes the sweet, solid contact on almost every shot. His mentor, Byron Nelson, had predicted that when Watson was back in his 30s that he would become a better ball striker when he was in his 40s. Nicklaus predicted the same thing.
He (Nicklaus) said, Youre going to hit the ball better than you ever have, the older you get, said Watson.
You basically fall into a pattern where your swing will repeat itself a lot better than when you were a kid, probably because of using your feel a little better. I made a slight adjustment in my setup that really adjusted my swing plane, and that was back in the early 90s. Ever since then, Ive hit the ball quite a bit better than I did in the late 80s.
Watson plays Inverness this week in yet another USGA championship. He played his first 31 years ago ' the 72 U.S. Open. Now its time for the U.S. Senior Open, and Watson is a youngster again, walking around with the games legends.
Come to think of it, hes a legend, too. But he didnt look it that night when he was sitting around watching all of us writing hacks pick up awards.