Facing final Masters, Watson feeling joy

By John FeinsteinApril 5, 2016, 2:15 pm

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.

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“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.

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Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 4:00 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.

Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.

''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.

''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''

David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.

The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''

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The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros

By Phil BlackmarJanuary 20, 2018, 1:24 am

Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.

Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.

I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.

One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.

So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?

You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?

Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?

I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.

This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.

Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:

On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.

The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:

“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.

Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.

Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.

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Woods, Rahm, Rickie, J-Day headline Torrey field

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 20, 2018, 12:47 am

Tiger Woods is set to make his 2018 debut.

Woods is still part of the final field list for next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, the headliner of a tournament that includes defending champion Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.

In all, 12 of the top 26 players in the world are teeing it up at Torrey Pines.

Though Woods has won eight times at Torrey Pines, he hasn’t broken 71 in his past seven rounds there and hasn’t played all four rounds since 2013, when he won. Last year he missed the cut after rounds of 76-72, then lasted just one round in Dubai before he withdrew with back spasms.

After a fourth back surgery, Woods didn’t return to competition until last month’s Hero World Challenge, where he tied for ninth. 

Woods has committed to play both the Farmers Insurance Open and next month's Genesis Open at Riviera, which benefits his foundation. 

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Even on 'off' day, Rahm shoots 67 at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 20, 2018, 12:36 am

Jon Rahm didn’t strike the ball as purely Friday as he did during his opening round at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

He still managed a 5-under 67 that put him just one shot off the lead heading into the weekend.

“I expected myself to go to the range (this morning) and keep flushing everything like I did yesterday,” said Rahm, who shot a career-low 62 at La Quinta on Thursday. “Everything was just a little bit off. It was just one of those days.”

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

After going bogey-free on Thursday, Rahm mixed four birdies and two bogeys over his opening six holes. He managed to settle down around the turn, then made two birdies on his final three holes to move within one shot of Andrew Landry (65).

Rahm has missed only five greens through two rounds and sits at 15-under 129. 

The 23-year-old Spaniard won in Dubai to end the year and opened 2018 with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He needs a top-6 finish or better this week to supplant Jordan Spieth as the No. 2 player in the world.