Watson, by the way, was Tiger Woods before there ever was a Tiger Woods. For eight years, he was the best player in the game. From 1977 to 1985, he won 29 times ' six in 1980, five each in 78 and 79.
Now, though, he is just a pretty good Senior. He only plays occasionally, 13 times for each of the past two years. This year he has been coaxed away from his wife and stepchildren 10 times to go play with the elders. That is more than the usual, but Watson obviously is comfortable doing it his way, popping out only occasionally to play golf.
Sunday was yet another runner-up finish for Watson. He was second this time to Don Pooley at the U.S. Senior Open. Pooley was often injured when he was playing the junior tour, so his two PGA Tour wins are hardly a synopsis of the way he played. But suffice it to say, he was no Tom Watson.
But this is approximately 20 years after Watson was high-stepping it around winning tournaments as often as Pooley changed socks. Watson doesnt play too often anymore, and Pooley is much improved in both his health and his mechanics. Obviously, the vast chasm that separated them when they were 30 doesnt mean a whole lot here in the year 2002.
Ergo, one shouldnt be too surprised that the gap has shrunk considerably. This tour will do that to you, a tour that lifts former journeyman such as Doug Tewell, Bruce Fleisher, Gil Morgan and Allen Doyle to the status of so many Nicklauses.
Of course, theres the rather indelicate matter of Watsons putter. For a decade, he rolled it as well as anyone in the game. But his last 10 years in the game have been an almost daily exercise of jab-it-and-miss-it.
Root for my putter, will you? Watson joked at the Senior Open. I need a little help in that area.
In the second and third rounds, Watsons putter was the putter of those last 10 years. In the final round Sunday, he found something ' again ' and began stroking in everything. Oh, if only he could putt like the old Watson. He stripes the ball up fairways to the green. But once he gets the putter in his hands, its the ultimate adventure.
The Watson saga is the downfall of so many of greats past. Sam Snead. Ben Hogan. Arnold Palmer. All were impressive putters at one time, but after years and years of dropping them in, something just seemed to come unwound. Watson has heard it, experienced it, so many times that a missed putt has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The fine motor skills ' theyre the first to go with some people, Watson said. Thats what has happened to me.
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. It doesnt go through the way it should go through.
Hes gotten putting tips from all across North America. He reads them all, even if he doesnt necessarily try every one.
I listen to them, sure, said Watson. Sure, I listen to some more than others. I have scientists sending me all sorts of theories that they believe in. I send them back a note saying, Thank you for the tip.
There is the occasional one from the other end of the galaxy ' the ones where they said to close the left eye and putt left-handed sidesaddle, he said.
But those times when Watson is putting well, he doesnt see anything but the hole. You arent even thinking about how you stroke it. You just see the hole and you go after it.
So Watson labors with this one enormous handicap, a handicap that, for one beautiful afternoon Sunday, didnt exist. He holed everything. If he could putt like this, all the Senior Tour records would go out the window. If I could putt, I could win, he says simply. Theres no question about that. But I preface that with the if.
Still, Tom Watson is nothing if not a man of convictions. He dropped out of the Kansas City Country Club because of its stance on not admitting Jewish members. He isnt Jewish, but his ex-wife was. He once was involved in a rules clash with Gary Player, and his feelings about Bill Murray at Pebble Beach are rather well known.
Perhaps nothing, though, explains Watson as much as a decision he made at Winged Foot during U.S. Open week in 1984. The father of a close friend from his Stanford days had died unexpectedly. The funeral was clear across the continent, but Watson never hesitated. He caught a flight at 9 a.m. out of Newark, attended the funeral, then turned around and caught a red-eye, and straight to Winged Foot for practice. His friend, Jim Vernon, will forever be grateful for Watsons kind act.
And, he was runner-up in the U.S. Open, senior variety. He won an Open, junior variety, with his great chip-in in 1982. This one was just as exciting, though he didnt quite win. It fits within the framework of your age, he said. In other words, the Senior Open means every bit as much to the 50-and-overs as the U.S. Open means to Tiger.
The only thing was, in the days when he was a junior, it seems like he won them all. That was a different time, of course, and Watsons life goals were in a different place. That was a time when Watson was all golf. This is a time when Watson is a little bit golf, but a whole lot just the man down the street.
Perhaps, too, is Pooley. And cest la vie, said Watson, who obviously is pleased with the present-day Thomas Sturgis Watson.