Tom Watson was once a dead-eyed dude with the putter. That was when he was winning 36 times on the PGA TOUR. But he lost his touch, and though he won three more times on the regular tour and eight times on the Champions, he never again has been a consistently good putter.
This time, it was the U.S. Senior Open, played in his home state of Kansas. Watson played brilliantly in front of the heartlanders, scratching out a two-shot lead as the final round began. But alas, on Sunday the old nemesis was right there, doing those funny little things in the most maddening of circumstances. He took 30 putts ' 16 the front nine ' and lost it by two strokes to a surprised Allen Doyle.
Actually, Watson is better than he used to be with the confound instrument. But it has a way of jumping up and submarining him in the most inopportune of times. He still makes plenty of long- and medium-range putts. But the short ones sometimes the bottom of the cup is covered with clear plastic when he gets ready to attempt a 3-footer.
Sunday got off to an ominous start when he 3-putted the second hole. Now he gets to No. 3, and hes shell-shocked, and he 3-putts again. And after that, it was apparent that he just wasnt going to get the job done.
Ive had problems with the short putts, with the stroke not going straight whack back and straight through, Watson said, and it was my Achilles heel today. It caused a couple actually, I think four very makeable short putts that I missed. And that's obviously, that puts me right there in the tournament to win the golf tournament.
What makes it all the more troubling is that, just Friday, putting was the strong point of his game. During that round he gave a very strong performance, one-putting 11 greens. Thats probably testimony to the fact that he didnt have very many short return putts.
But then, on Sunday, the old bugaboo reappeared. And hes suffered long enough with it that he knows it can rise at any time.
I fight it all the time, said Watson, who by now knows that it isnt going to get much better. He hits the woods and irons great. And if the putts would just drop on an average basis, he would be by far the best senior golfer in history.
The long putting stroke is OK, he said. The short stroke is just - I just have a hard time getting the ball to go - the stroke to go straight back and straight through.
But I'll just live with it.
Watson, indeed, has learned to live with it. Actually, last season he was all the way up to No. 6 in putting among the seniors. Back in 2003 he was second. But those figures were testimony to his prowess to his accuracy from 10 feet and more. The short ones have always been a hit-or-miss thing.
He explained what it feels like when you are zeroing in on the hole with the putter ' and he certainly remembers how with an excellent percentage as a younger player when he was good as putter as there was in the game. Up until the age of, say, 35, Watson was absolutely fearless in charging the hole. There wasnt an iota of a doubt in his mind that he would make the comebacker, the 3- , 4- and 5-foot return putt.
But eventually he slipped into a few bad habits on the rollers, and then ' voila ' it was there ' he started missing the short one.
Putting - what happens there is that you get in a bad set-up position and you work from that position for a long time, and it gets ingrained in your stroke. And it's hard to break that, any bad habits, he said.
At one time, the short misses drove Watson insane. But years and years of trying, working incessantly but still not improving much, made him realize that he never again would be a reliable short putter. He approaches it philosophically now, realizing that one changes the things that can be changed, and accepts those which cant.
It's always a guess, he conceded. I'm not very certain with it.
Before, I was a great wind putter. I had a short back stroke and a popping stroke. Now my stroke goes longer to the inside, kind of on a curve, and it's not pretty. The longer stroke is pretty good - straight back and straight through. But once I get to a certain stroke, way to stroke, where I have to hit a softer hit, it doesn't work very well.
Watson moves to the Ford Senior Players Championship this week, and he knows that, after 35 years as a professional golfer, there is no reason to expect a great improvement. He is hopeful that he wont let it blindside him again. But he realizes that it might. That is the life of Tom Watson at 55.
Email your thoughts to George White