When Tom Watson motors down Magnolia Lane next week it will mark his 37th turn down the game’s most hallowed driveway. He’s won twice, come close more times than he’s cares to recall and, at 60 years young, still gets nervous when he walks past the big oak on his way to the first tee.
The place still amazes him, like a few weeks back when he first eyed Augusta National’s new practice facility, “How about that? It’s quite something. The whole setup there is amazing. The people used to come in on a gravel parking lot, now they come through a main gate area that must have 50 openings and it’s covered,” he said with the look of a 10-year-old on Christmas morning.
Q&As with Hall of Famers are always enlightening, and more often than not entertaining as well, and on the eve of the year’s first major championship, Watson didn’t disappoint.
First, the resume: The two-time Masters champion (1977, ’81) has the distinction of clipping Jack Nicklaus in both triumphs, 19 top-25 finishes amid the dogwoods and azaleas, and an assortment of near-misses that, contrary to common bromides, have not faded with time. With Shotlink precision, Watson can recount shots played four decades earlier and with HiDef quality the emotions each left behind.
When asked if he had one shot to play over again at Augusta National, the answer was delivered with the ease and certainty of 1,000 perfect-struck 7-irons.
“There was a putt on the 14th hole the year Gary Player won that I three-putted (1978),” Watson smiled with his signature toothy grin. “If I make that putt I probably win the tournament.”
It might also provide this year’s first-timers a measure of solace to know that the nerves they will inevitably be fighting when they step to the first tee are not the unnerving domain of the rookie.
Nearly four decades into his Masters career, Watson still feels the competitive rush when he hears the words, “Fore please. Now driving, Tom Watson.”
“I remember the first time I played it,” said Watson, who played his first Masters in 1970 as an amateur. “The excitement I had on the first tee with Doug Ford. That never leaves you when you tee it up at Augusta National in the first round. That never leaves you.”
And the ongoing nip/tuck of the former Fruitland Nursery is of particular interest to a player with a keen sense of golf course design.
“I let the cat out of the bag. They used to mow the fairways, half the fairway one direction and the other half in another direction. If you caught the down-grain (half) you’d have 30-, 40- maybe 50-yards of roll. If you hit into the grain that ball would pop up and stop, maybe with some mud on the ball,” Watson said.
“I made the comment to a chairman, ‘Thanks for doing that because they always cut it on the inside of the dogleg so if you hit the risky shot you were always rewarded with more roll.’ The next year the fairways are all mowed against you. That’s the way it’s been since then.”
Nor, even with 116 competitive rounds at Augusta National, was it a difficult journey to reach his most treasured Masters moment.
“Winning in ’77 was something really special. I remember how nervous I was. Some guy by the name of Nicklaus started (to make a charge) and it boiled down to the last few holes,” Watson recalled.
“The 16th was the game changer, not my birdie at 17, I debated a hard 6-iron or 5-iron. Went with 5-iron but I had to take something off of it. I made the swing and hit it flush, 15 feet behind hole. When I hit that shot the nerves just flushed out of my body. Man if I can do that shot, I’ve got it. Played the last few just relaxed.”
And finally, the man who tempted fate last year with one of the game’s most-improbable and magical runs at Turnberry offered an equally tantalizing pick for next week’s Masters. The active player with the most experience at Augusta National predicts that more than five months of golf inactivity will have little impact on Tiger Woods (place) and acknowledged Lee Westwood’s history and form (show).
For the win, however, Watson went with a Champions Tour contemporary: Fred Couples.
“Winning breeds winning and he has been winning and putting the eyes out of it,” Watson said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a 4 footer on the Champions Tour or the Masters. They all mean the same. They all are the same, you have to make it and he’s making all the 4 footers right now.”
Almost as good as Watson’s historic turn at Turnberry. Almost.