Down to a Single Shot


Tom Watson was Tiger Woods before there was Tiger Woods. In the late 70s and early 80s, he went through a six-year stretch when he won 26 times ' maybe not Tiger-esque numbers, but certainly far better than anyone else who was playing during that time.
Watson, curiously, had a reputation as a bridesmaid for the first five years of his career. He had a frustrating habit of being unable to finish off a victory until 1977, when he broke through for four wins. His 34 PGA Tour victories and five British Opens gave him a career total of 39 wins, and he dressed that up with a total of eight major championships and three Vardon Trophies.
The last of his regular-tour wins came in 1998 at the MasterCard Colonial. Watson was 48 then, nearly at the end of his glittering PGA Tour career. I had to learn to win by hating to lose, he said. He has gone on to the Senior Tour where he has played sparingly but successfully. Forever he will remember, however, his Colonial where he emulated a hero of his, Ben Hogan.
Watson hit one of the greatest shots of his career at Colonial in 98. Tom himself believes it ranks among the top four of his long and illustrious career ' the 60-foot birdie putt at the 16th green which helped defeat Jack Nicklaus in the 1977 British Open; the chip-in at the 17 at Pebble Beach to defeated Nicklaus in 82; his 2-iron to the final green at Royal Birkdale which clinched the 83 British; and the approach shot at the ninth hole at the 98 Colonial.
Watson had hooked up with Jim Furyk in a tense duel, and they were deadlocked at the 391-yard ninth when Watson hit his drive into a church-pew bunker on the right side of the fairway. The ball was only 132 yards from the pin, but it was too close to the lip for him to stand in the bunker. He would have to stand outside, on the grass a foot above the ball, to make contact.
To make the shot more treacherous, there is a menacing pond directly in front of the green. Watson would have to crouch over, swing on a level plane, and catch the ball crisply enough to carry the pond.
The whole tournament boiled do to that one shot on No. 9, said Watson. I was just trying to make contact and not hit it fat. I caught it flush, in the back of the ball. I was worried before I struck it. Not after, though.
The ball popped out exactly as he had hoped. The 8-iron caught it flush and he delivered a crisp blow, the ball rolling up to within 10 feet. One putt later, Watson had turned a bogey into a birdie. When Furyk bogeyed the 15th to fall three behind, Watson galloped home a winner.
In Watsons early days, he was a superb putter. I had the line, I hit the ball where I was looking, and the ball went in the hole, he said. I aimed the putter and I knew the ball was going right along the line.
But in the 90s, the putts mysteriously stopped dropping. At first it was mystifying. It became a little comical, the way the ball would stay out of the hole. Then it became pure frustration as yet another short one would slide futilely by. The agony of the missed short putt made a great ball-striker into only an average scorer. Had he had a putting game in his later years to match his long game, he would have won at least 10 more tournaments.
In 1988, he missed a three-footer in a playoff and lost the Hawaiian Open. In 1993 at the U.S. Open, he was in contention until he started missing short putts Saturday. That led to a 73 and meant that the 69 he shot Sunday would only get him a tie for fifth. In the 93 PGA, his first three rounds of 69-65-70 left him just one off the lead. But in the final round he began the day with missed four-footers on two of the first three holes and finished fifth.
Generally, my last rounds were pitiful, he says frankly. Mostly, its the inability to get the ball in the cup when I really had to. Of course, when youre under pressure, thats when your nerves take over. And they took over too many times.
With all the glory that has come Watsons way, there is one telling statistic: he has entered the final round of PGA Tour and British Open events 19 times within three shots of the lead ' and hasnt won. Thirty-nine times, he has been successful, but if he could have 11 of those 19 near-misses, he would have had 50 wins.
Another legendary golfer had the same problem ' Sam Snead. Another ' Arnold Palmer. Yet another - Ben Hogan.
You followed Hogan all those years and watched him suffer after hitting the ball just beautifully and not being able to take the putter back, said Watson. Its not to the point where I cant take the putter back ' the putter goes back in funny places. It doesnt go back where it should go back. Doesnt go through the way it should go through on the short putts, and the longer putts where I can use a little bit more of this and that, it works better.
The short misses, though, are the only blemish on what has been a wonderful career ' typified by his brilliant shot at the 98 Colonial. Today, there is Tiger Woods. In the 1980s, there was Tom Watson.