AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tom Watson can’t believe it, either.
Watson is carving shots through space and time again, but this time he’s as surprised as the galleries who are witness to it.
With every swing Thursday in the first round of the Masters, Watson appeared to grow younger once more. He hit the shots he used to hit when he was dangerous here. His 5-under-par 67 equaled his lowest score in his 36 years at the Masters, in 118 previous rounds here. It was his lowest score in his last 20 Masters.
Watson made the patrons at Augusta National believe he can pull a miracle here just like he made all those fans at Turnberry believe he could win the British Open last summer.
When he holed a 5-footer for birdie at the 18th hole to become the early leader in the clubhouse, he ignited a roar from yesteryear.
Watson credited his son, Michael, for inspiring the round because even the elder Watson didn’t seem confident this kind of day was still out there for him. Michael, 27, is a businessman caddying for just the second time in competition for his father.
As they prepared for this Masters, Watson wondered if the course was too long and too big for him.
“That’s what he keeps telling me, and I keep reminding him he can hit all the shots in front of him,” Michael said.
Watson hugged his son after that final birdie fell.
“I think a big part of my success today was having my son on the bag,” Watson said. “He said `Show me, show me you can still play this golf course.’”
Boy, did papa oblige.
Watson rolled in a 25-foot birdie at the first hole and a 5-footer for birdie at the last. He rolled in a 30-foot birdie at the 15th. He putted like a man possessed, not the fellow who has waged constant battles with his putter the last two decades. Watson got up and down with impressive par saves for five consecutive holes beginning at the 10th.
“His putting has been his strong suit,” Michael said.
Watson relished performing for his son, who didn’t come to be a cheerleader on papa’s bag. Michael sounded more like a coach than a caddie. He’s pushing his father because he believes his dad can finish what he started at Turnberry.
The oldest winner of the Masters is Jack Nicklaus. He was 46 when he won in 1986. The oldest winner of a major is Julius Boros. He was 48 when he won the PGA Championship at Pecan Valley in San Antonio, Texas, in 1968.
Before Thursday’s round, Michael gave Tom a pep talk.
“It was as simple as, 'Hey, dad, let’s go out and play a good round of golf.’ He didn’t add, 'for a change.’ But I know that’s what he was thinking,” Tom said.
Watson, an eight-time major championship winner, has missed the cut the last seven times he’s played the Masters. He hadn’t broken par the last 17 times he teed it up in the event.
Acknowledging it’s just the first round, Watson isn’t getting ahead of himself. “It doesn’t matter what it is now,” he said. “It matters Sunday.”
Steve Marino, playing with Watson, marveled afterward. They were also paired together in the third round of the British Open. Marino watched Watson seize a one-stroke lead going to the final round at Turnberry with a 71 in difficult conditions while Marino shot 76. Watson, of course, would just miss becoming the oldest winner of a major, losing a playoff to Stewart Cink.
“Both times I’ve played with him, he’s been unbelievable,” Marino said.
Asked how old Watson looked out there, Marino shrugged his shoulders.
“He’s playing like the best player in the world,” he said. “It’s pretty unbelievable, the guy hits it so solid and so straight.”
Watson said his near victory at Turnberry still yields benefits.
“There has been a certain glow about the whole situation, even though I finished second,” Watson said. “And the glow comes from the people who watched it and who have come up to me and have commented to me. A lot of people have said, `You know, I'm not too old now. You've just proven to me that I'm just not too old.’'
Jack Nicklaus huddled with Watson at the Masters Champions Dinner Tuesday night. When he asked Watson how he viewed his chances, Watson told him he believed the course was too long for him. Of course, Watson knows his putter and nerves will be tested here more than anyplace else.
“He’s here to win,” Michael said.
Augusta National patrons are believers. You could here it as Watson made his way around this place. Now if only they can get Watson to believe ...