AUGUSTA, Ga. – Moments after Tom Watson became the oldest golfer to ever break par at the Masters, he explained something: He cannot play No. 7. He just can’t play the hole; he cannot hit the ball far enough to reach the green with his second shot. He needs a perfect drive and a little bit of luck to par No. 9. He’s more or less looking for heavenly help on Nos. 10 and 11, he has no shot at No. 14 and he says No. 17 requires him to hit a 4-iron approach to the green, a geometric impossibility.
Remember: He explains this AFTER he shot a 71 at age 65. The only other man in his 60s to ever break par at the Masters was Sam Snead, and he was a relatively spry 61 at the time.
“At my age,” Watson says of his sub-par round, “that’s a minor miracle.”
Watson has sprinkled the latter part of his career with minor miracles. There was the 67 he shot in his opening round at Augusta five years ago, putting him just a shot off the lead. There was the time in 2003 when he led the U.S. Open after the first round – this while his longtime caddie and friend Bruce Edwards carried the bag though he was already in the early stages of ALS. And, most famously, he was a shot away from winning the Open Championship at Turnberry just before he turned 60.
This minor miracle was different, though, because despite all the evidence, Tom Watson still BELIEVED he could contend in those days. His wife Hillary would tell him, “You are as good as anybody out there … even if he didn’t always believe it in here,” she added parenthetically as she pointed at her heart. “And then he would do these unlikely things and act surprised that anyone else was surprised.”
“It’s your job, guys, to write the stories,” Watson would say. “It’s my job to make them.”
This time around? “Well,” he said sheepishly, “now I know how you guys feel when you play golf.”
That’s because he just can’t hit it long enough to compete at Augusta National. Watson says he really didn’t start seeing his shot length fall off until a couple of years ago, but now he seems to lose significant yardage every month. Watson says that he isn’t hitting the ball nearly as long as he did even at last year’s Masters. And last year he checked out after shooting 78 and 81.
Put it this way: Ben Crenshaw is two years younger than Watson and he has announced that this will be his last Masters. If it wouldn’t have stolen Crenshaw’s moment, you get the sense Watson would have announced the same.
“I can’t really play here,” he said.
So then, how does he break par? Well, he does it by “playing within myself,” or, in the language weekend golfers can understand, by playing old-man golf. He played all the par 5s as three-shot holes, of course, and he birdied two of them. His bunker shot at No. 10 was moving too fast, but it dropped in the hole – turning bogey to birdie. He hit a spectacular tee shot at the par-3 16th and made a short birdie putt.
And the rest of round? He held on for dear life. On the longest holes he hit the ball into the general area of the green and used his short game to try and eke out pars. In his younger days, Watson was so wild that he became known for making what the other golfers called “Watson Pars” – remarkable saves from the woods and off the greens. Watson’s pars on Thursday weren’t quite as spectacular, but they were impressive. He had an up-and-down at No. 11, a nice pitch at No. 14 and a good putt at the 18th.
“I struggled the last few years trying to hit shots like I used to,” Watson says. “My ego got involved too much. Today, I just played within myself. … And yes, the competitive juices start to flow. Are you kidding? It’s fun to shoot under par at Augusta. That doesn’t get old, ever. I didn’t know if I could ever do that again.”
Then he is asked if he can contend. I’ve known Tom Watson for 25 years, and I know his pride. I’ve never once heard him say that he can’t contend … and he doesn’t exactly admit that on Thursday either. Not exactly.
“Let’s just say that I’m not kidding myself.”