Facing final Masters, Watson feeling joy

By John FeinsteinApril 5, 2016, 2:15 pm

Tom Watson insists he isn’t thinking about it. He says he’s much too focused on trying to play well and make the cut in his final Masters to have given any thought to the emotions he’s going to feel when he walks up the 18th fairway at Augusta National for the final time.

“Honestly, I’m doing what I’ve always done, practicing and trying to get ready to play as well as I can possibly play,” he said last week, sipping a glass of water during a lengthy sit-down interview at Kansas City Country Club, the place where his remarkable golf odyssey began 60 years ago.

“I was 6 when my dad first took me to the range out here, put a club in my hand and held my head with his hand so I wouldn’t move it,” he said, smiling at the memory. “He let go after a little while because he could see that I got it.”

Watson got it in ways few players in history have ever gotten it. The numbers are extraordinary: eight major titles; 39 PGA Tour wins; 71 wins worldwide; six PGA Tour Player of the Year awards – not to mention remarkable longevity.

Two months before turning 60, Watson came within inches of winning a sixth Open Championship. The following April he became the first player to shoot 67 or better in all four majors in four different decades, when he opened with a 67 at the Masters en route to finishing tied for 18th. A year ago at Augusta, at 65, he became the oldest man to break par in the Masters – shooting 71 on Thursday.

“But 81 on Friday,” he quickly points out.

Which is why this will be his 43rd, and last, Masters and his 145th, and last, major championship.

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“I just can’t play the golf course well anymore,” he said. “I don’t hit it long enough to really compete. I’ll miss it, I know I’ll miss it. I’ll be jealous, next year, of the guys who are playing. But it’s time.”

What if he makes the cut?

“Ask me that question if I do it,” he said, smiling the trademark, gap-toothed Huck Finn grin.

Watson has never been one to let his emotions show – at least not very often. Even last July, when he walked over the Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews in near darkness on Friday in his final Open Championship, there were no tears.

“I told [son] Michael then and I’m going to tell everyone now, this should be about joy, just joy,” he said. “I may have had some regrets in my career, but when I look back that’s the word for my life: joy.”

It isn’t as if Watson has NEVER shed tears publicly. When Bruce Edwards, his best friend and caddie for 30 years, died 12 years ago of ALS, Watson cried unabashedly after playing his first round at the Masters on the morning Edwards died. When someone asked him if he’d thought about not playing after getting the news less than an hour before his tee time, Watson shook his head and smiled through his tears.

“If I’d have done that,” he said, “Bruce would have come back here and kicked my butt.”

He was right about that.

Some thought that Watson’s last major would be last summer at St. Andrews. After all, he won the Open Championship on five occasions and became an adopted Scot. His first major title came at Carnoustie in 1975, the first time he played in the event.

“I still remember Byron Nelson saying to me before the last round, ‘Tom, the wind is up today. You shoot around par, you can win.’ I did and I came from, I think three shots back, to end up tied with Jack Newton.”

Watson beat Newton in an 18-hole playoff the next day. Two years later, he twice beat Nicklaus head-to-head down the stretch: first at Augusta, then at Turnberry. Watson was standing in the 13th fairway on Masters Sunday, tied for the lead with Nicklaus, when Nicklaus rolled in a birdie putt up ahead on the green and, to Watson’s way of thinking, pointed back at him as if to say, ‘take that.’”

“I was in competition mode,” Watson said, laughing at the memory. “Jack later told me that absolutely wasn’t what he was doing, but at that moment I decided he was. Probably helped me. My thought was, ‘bring it on.’”

Watson matched Nicklaus’s birdie at 13 and then birdied 17 to take the lead. He ended up winning by two.

“That was the first time Jack waited for me behind a green to congratulate me,” he said. “It was very special.

“At Turnberry, after he made me make my last 2-footer by making one from 40 feet, he kind of put me in a headlock walking off the 18th green and said, ‘I gave you my best shot and it wasn’t good enough.’ That was really the moment when I felt like I had arrived.”

He was the best player in the world for most of the next six years. His one U.S. Open victory was his most famous win: the chip-in on the 17th at Pebble Beach that (again) broke a tie with Nicklaus. He then rolled in a birdie putt at 18 to win by two. That final putt was going very fast when it hit the hole and went in.

“I called my dad afterwards,” Watson remembered. “The [U.S.] Open was always the major he cherished the most. He could name every Open champion. So, I called and said, ‘Dad, I finally did it.’ He said, ‘Nice lag on 18.’

“I said, ‘It would have gone a foot by the hole if it’d missed.’ His answer was something along the lines of, ‘Yeah, right.’”

The reason Watson chose Augusta to make his exit is simple: It is where he began, not only playing his first major there as a Stanford junior in 1970, but seriously thinking that maybe, just maybe, he was good enough to play the Tour after he qualified for the Masters by finishing fifth at the U.S. Amateur the previous summer at Oakmont.

“I was struggling the first day of the Amateur, playing late in the day,” he said. “I think I was 3 or 4 over when I got to No. 8, the long par 3. The green was in shadows because of the trees so we couldn’t see it. I hit a 3-iron, flush, right at the hole. I heard a few people shouting back at us. Turned out the ball had gone in.”

The ace, followed by a birdie at the ninth, jump-started Watson and, in those days, the top eight finishers (it was all medal play) qualified for the following year’s Masters.

“When I realized I was going to play in the Masters, I thought, ‘OK, this is serious now,’” he said. “When I was a kid, I never played after September 1. I played other sports and, honestly, I was tired of golf after playing all summer. I did pretty much the same thing my first two years at Stanford. But when I knew I was going to play the Masters, I figured I better be ready to play.”

He remembers having a chance to make the cut that year – rolling along at 1 under par on Friday when he and Gay Brewer arrived at the 13th tee.

“I hit a big drive around the corner,” he said. “I had a 6 iron to the green and I put it in the creek. Went from birdie to double-bogey with a 6-iron in my hands. I missed the cut by three.”

There are almost too many memories since then for Watson to count. He remembers his first Champions Dinner in 1978 when Ben Hogan presented him with a Masters champion’s pin. It was Hogan’s last Champions Dinner.

And, he still thinks of Edwards – who loved the Masters more than any other tournament – every time he sets foot on the grounds at Augusta National. Since 2005, he has taken an egg salad sandwich with him in his bag when he tees it up on Thursday. At the 13th tee, he walks to the bench at the back of the tee and lays the sandwich there.

“It’s for Bruce,” he said. “That’s the most private place on the golf course and there’s always a delay there because guys are going for the green in two. Bruce would always take an egg salad sandwich out there and eat it on that tee while we waited.”

Neil Oxman, who first pointed Edwards in Watson’s direction in St. Louis in 1973, will be Watson’s caddie this last time around. Oxman, who manages Democratic political campaigns (and is 180 degrees opposite of Watson in political philosophy), has caddied for Watson since Edwards’ death whenever he has free time.

Six years ago, Michael Watson was on the bag for the Masters when Watson had his last top-20 finish. He also caddied for his father in his last U.S. Open that June at Pebble Beach and then last summer at St. Andrews. Oxman assumed Michael Watson would also caddie for this last hurrah.

“He said he didn’t want to do it,” Oxman said. “He wanted his last memory inside the ropes with his dad to be that 67 and the 18th-place finish. He said, ‘you do it, you should do it.’”

And so, Watson and Oxman will carry one last egg salad sandwich with them to the 13th tee. Whether Watson will cry walking up 18 for the last time is hard to know because he’s the first to admit he has no idea what he will be feeling when the cheers wash over him in those final moments.

One thing though is certain: when Watson leaves that last sandwich for Bruce, he will shed a few tears. He’ll feel the sting of his absence, but also, without doubt, will remember the moments of joy they shared on that spot.

One more memory to take with him.

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Watch: Moore does impressions of Tiger, Poults, Bubba

By Grill Room TeamJuly 16, 2018, 10:36 pm
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Johnson begins Open week as 12/1 betting favorite

By Will GrayJuly 16, 2018, 5:15 pm

Dustin Johnson heads into The Open as the top-ranked player in the world, and he's also an understandable betting favorite as he looks to win a second career major.

Johnson has not played since the U.S. Open, where he led by four shots at the halfway point and eventually finished third. He has three top-10 finishes in nine Open appearances, notably a T-2 finish at Royal St. George's in 2011.

Johnson opened as a 12/1 favorite when the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook first published odds for Carnoustie after the U.S. Open, and he remains at that number with the first round just three days away.

Here's a look at the latest odds on some of the other top contenders, according to the Westgate:

12/1: Dustin Johnson

16/1: Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose

20/1: Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Tommy Fleetwood, Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm

25/1: Jason Day, Henrik Stenson, Tiger Woods

30/1: Sergio Garcia, Francesco Molinari, Paul Casey, Alex Noren, Patrick Reed

40/1: Hideki Matsuyama, Marc Leishman, Branden Grace, Tyrrell Hatton

50/1: Phil Mickelson, Ian Poulter, Matthew Fitzpatrick

60/1: Russell Knox, Louis Oosthuizen, Matt Kuchar, Bryson DeChambeau, Zach Johnson, Tony Finau, Bubba Watson

80/1: Lee Westwood, Adam Scott, Patrick Cantlay, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Thomas Pieters, Xander Schauffele

100/1: Shane Lowry, Webb Simpson, Brandt Snedeker, Ryan Fox, Thorbjorn Olesen

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Woods needs top-10 at Open to qualify for WGC

By Will GrayJuly 16, 2018, 4:34 pm

If Tiger Woods is going to qualify for the final WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, he'll need to do something he hasn't done in five years this week at The Open.

Woods has won eight times at Firestone, including his most recent PGA Tour victory in 2013, and has openly stated that he would like to qualify for the no-cut event in Akron before it shifts to Memphis next year. But in order to do so, Woods will need to move into the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking after this week's event at Carnoustie.

Woods is currently ranked No. 71 in the world, down two spots from last week, and based on projections it means that he'll need to finish no worse than a tie for eighth to have a chance of cracking the top 50. Woods' last top-10 finish at a major came at the 2013 Open at Muirfield, where he tied for sixth.

Updated Official World Golf Ranking

There are actually two OWGR cutoffs for the Bridgestone, July 23 and July 30. That means that Woods could theoretically still add a start at next week's RBC Canadian Open to chase a spot in the top 50, but he has said on multiple occasions that this week will be his last start of the month. The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational will be played Aug. 2-5.

There wasn't much movement in the world rankings last week, with the top 10 staying the same heading into the season's third major. Dustin Johnson remains world No. 1, followed by Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm. Defending Open champ Jordan Spieth is ranked sixth, with Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Tommy Fleetwood rounding out the top 10.

Despite taking the week off, Sweden's Alex Noren moved up three spots from No. 14 to No. 11, passing Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson and Paul Casey.

John Deere Classic champ Michael Kim went from No. 473 to No. 215 in the latest rankings, while South African Brandon Stone jumped from 371st to 110th with his win at the Scottish Open.

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Spieth takes familiar break ahead of Open defense

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:50 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – As his title chances seemed to be slipping away during the final round of last year’s Open Championship, Jordan Spieth’s caddie took a moment to remind him who he was.

Following a bogey at No. 13, Michael Greller referenced a recent vacation he’d taken to Mexico where he’d spent time with Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan and why he deserved to be among that group of singular athletes.

Spieth, who won last year’s Open, decided to continue the tradition, spending time in Cabo again before this week’s championship.

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“I kind of went through the same schedule,” Spieth said on Monday at Carnoustie. “It was nice to have a little vacation.”

Spieth hasn’t played since the Travelers Championship; instead he attended the Special Olympics USA Games earlier this month in Seattle with his sister. It was Spieth’s first time back to the Pacific Northwest since he won the 2015 U.S. Open.

“I went out to Chambers Bay with [Greller],” Spieth said. “We kind of walked down the 18th hole. It was cool reliving those memories.”

But most of all Spieth said he needed a break after a particularly tough season.

“I had the itch to get back to it after a couple weeks of not really working,” he said. “It was nice to kind of have that itch to get back.”