Tom Watson insists he isn’t thinking about it. He says he’s much too focused on trying to play well and make the cut in his final Masters to have given any thought to the emotions he’s going to feel when he walks up the 18th fairway at Augusta National for the final time.
“Honestly, I’m doing what I’ve always done, practicing and trying to get ready to play as well as I can possibly play,” he said last week, sipping a glass of water during a lengthy sit-down interview at Kansas City Country Club, the place where his remarkable golf odyssey began 60 years ago.
“I was 6 when my dad first took me to the range out here, put a club in my hand and held my head with his hand so I wouldn’t move it,” he said, smiling at the memory. “He let go after a little while because he could see that I got it.”
Watson got it in ways few players in history have ever gotten it. The numbers are extraordinary: eight major titles; 39 PGA Tour wins; 71 wins worldwide; six PGA Tour Player of the Year awards – not to mention remarkable longevity.
Two months before turning 60, Watson came within inches of winning a sixth Open Championship. The following April he became the first player to shoot 67 or better in all four majors in four different decades, when he opened with a 67 at the Masters en route to finishing tied for 18th. A year ago at Augusta, at 65, he became the oldest man to break par in the Masters – shooting 71 on Thursday.
“But 81 on Friday,” he quickly points out.
Which is why this will be his 43rd, and last, Masters and his 145th, and last, major championship.
“I just can’t play the golf course well anymore,” he said. “I don’t hit it long enough to really compete. I’ll miss it, I know I’ll miss it. I’ll be jealous, next year, of the guys who are playing. But it’s time.”
What if he makes the cut?
“Ask me that question if I do it,” he said, smiling the trademark, gap-toothed Huck Finn grin.
Watson has never been one to let his emotions show – at least not very often. Even last July, when he walked over the Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews in near darkness on Friday in his final Open Championship, there were no tears.
“I told [son] Michael then and I’m going to tell everyone now, this should be about joy, just joy,” he said. “I may have had some regrets in my career, but when I look back that’s the word for my life: joy.”
It isn’t as if Watson has NEVER shed tears publicly. When Bruce Edwards, his best friend and caddie for 30 years, died 12 years ago of ALS, Watson cried unabashedly after playing his first round at the Masters on the morning Edwards died. When someone asked him if he’d thought about not playing after getting the news less than an hour before his tee time, Watson shook his head and smiled through his tears.
“If I’d have done that,” he said, “Bruce would have come back here and kicked my butt.”
He was right about that.
Some thought that Watson’s last major would be last summer at St. Andrews. After all, he won the Open Championship on five occasions and became an adopted Scot. His first major title came at Carnoustie in 1975, the first time he played in the event.
“I still remember Byron Nelson saying to me before the last round, ‘Tom, the wind is up today. You shoot around par, you can win.’ I did and I came from, I think three shots back, to end up tied with Jack Newton.”
Watson beat Newton in an 18-hole playoff the next day. Two years later, he twice beat Nicklaus head-to-head down the stretch: first at Augusta, then at Turnberry. Watson was standing in the 13th fairway on Masters Sunday, tied for the lead with Nicklaus, when Nicklaus rolled in a birdie putt up ahead on the green and, to Watson’s way of thinking, pointed back at him as if to say, ‘take that.’”
“I was in competition mode,” Watson said, laughing at the memory. “Jack later told me that absolutely wasn’t what he was doing, but at that moment I decided he was. Probably helped me. My thought was, ‘bring it on.’”
Watson matched Nicklaus’s birdie at 13 and then birdied 17 to take the lead. He ended up winning by two.
“That was the first time Jack waited for me behind a green to congratulate me,” he said. “It was very special.
“At Turnberry, after he made me make my last 2-footer by making one from 40 feet, he kind of put me in a headlock walking off the 18th green and said, ‘I gave you my best shot and it wasn’t good enough.’ That was really the moment when I felt like I had arrived.”
He was the best player in the world for most of the next six years. His one U.S. Open victory was his most famous win: the chip-in on the 17th at Pebble Beach that (again) broke a tie with Nicklaus. He then rolled in a birdie putt at 18 to win by two. That final putt was going very fast when it hit the hole and went in.
“I called my dad afterwards,” Watson remembered. “The [U.S.] Open was always the major he cherished the most. He could name every Open champion. So, I called and said, ‘Dad, I finally did it.’ He said, ‘Nice lag on 18.’
“I said, ‘It would have gone a foot by the hole if it’d missed.’ His answer was something along the lines of, ‘Yeah, right.’”
The reason Watson chose Augusta to make his exit is simple: It is where he began, not only playing his first major there as a Stanford junior in 1970, but seriously thinking that maybe, just maybe, he was good enough to play the Tour after he qualified for the Masters by finishing fifth at the U.S. Amateur the previous summer at Oakmont.
“I was struggling the first day of the Amateur, playing late in the day,” he said. “I think I was 3 or 4 over when I got to No. 8, the long par 3. The green was in shadows because of the trees so we couldn’t see it. I hit a 3-iron, flush, right at the hole. I heard a few people shouting back at us. Turned out the ball had gone in.”
The ace, followed by a birdie at the ninth, jump-started Watson and, in those days, the top eight finishers (it was all medal play) qualified for the following year’s Masters.
“When I realized I was going to play in the Masters, I thought, ‘OK, this is serious now,’” he said. “When I was a kid, I never played after September 1. I played other sports and, honestly, I was tired of golf after playing all summer. I did pretty much the same thing my first two years at Stanford. But when I knew I was going to play the Masters, I figured I better be ready to play.”
He remembers having a chance to make the cut that year – rolling along at 1 under par on Friday when he and Gay Brewer arrived at the 13th tee.
“I hit a big drive around the corner,” he said. “I had a 6 iron to the green and I put it in the creek. Went from birdie to double-bogey with a 6-iron in my hands. I missed the cut by three.”
There are almost too many memories since then for Watson to count. He remembers his first Champions Dinner in 1978 when Ben Hogan presented him with a Masters champion’s pin. It was Hogan’s last Champions Dinner.
And, he still thinks of Edwards – who loved the Masters more than any other tournament – every time he sets foot on the grounds at Augusta National. Since 2005, he has taken an egg salad sandwich with him in his bag when he tees it up on Thursday. At the 13th tee, he walks to the bench at the back of the tee and lays the sandwich there.
“It’s for Bruce,” he said. “That’s the most private place on the golf course and there’s always a delay there because guys are going for the green in two. Bruce would always take an egg salad sandwich out there and eat it on that tee while we waited.”
Neil Oxman, who first pointed Edwards in Watson’s direction in St. Louis in 1973, will be Watson’s caddie this last time around. Oxman, who manages Democratic political campaigns (and is 180 degrees opposite of Watson in political philosophy), has caddied for Watson since Edwards’ death whenever he has free time.
Six years ago, Michael Watson was on the bag for the Masters when Watson had his last top-20 finish. He also caddied for his father in his last U.S. Open that June at Pebble Beach and then last summer at St. Andrews. Oxman assumed Michael Watson would also caddie for this last hurrah.
“He said he didn’t want to do it,” Oxman said. “He wanted his last memory inside the ropes with his dad to be that 67 and the 18th-place finish. He said, ‘you do it, you should do it.’”
And so, Watson and Oxman will carry one last egg salad sandwich with them to the 13th tee. Whether Watson will cry walking up 18 for the last time is hard to know because he’s the first to admit he has no idea what he will be feeling when the cheers wash over him in those final moments.
One thing though is certain: when Watson leaves that last sandwich for Bruce, he will shed a few tears. He’ll feel the sting of his absence, but also, without doubt, will remember the moments of joy they shared on that spot.
One more memory to take with him.