Watson’s Fountain of Youth
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Tom Watson stood staring at his yardage book, convinced that a helpful number would jump off the page.
He paced and backtracked and studied the scene for several moments before finally, exasperated, declaring, “They don’t even have a sprinkler back this far in the book.”
Brad Faxon stopped by to say hello. Watson, 60, greeted him warmly and chatted briefly before resuming his search. Eventually he found his distance, but only after trekking roughly 20 yards ahead of his ball.
“I’m glad you’re not on the clock,” Faxon joked.
Freeze the moment, golf fans. On Wednesday morning on the 13th fairway at Pebble Beach, Tom Watson briefly showed his age.
Like sprinkler heads on a tightly mown fairway, there are certain markers that can be used to zero in on the number of years that have passed since the eight-time major champion’s birth in Kansas City, Mo.
He remembers playing here as a student at Stanford, back when about 15 bucks could get you on the first tee – less if you got in good with the starter. He’s playing in his fifth U.S. Open at Pebble, the only player in the field who has done that. In 1972, he collected a cool $1,217, which is about the cost for a threesome to play here today. And if you combine the ages of his Thursday playing partners – Watson will start on the 10th tee at 4:47 p.m. ET with Ryo Ishikawa and Rory McIlroy – you’d still have room to add in a young buck like Rickie Fowler before matching Watson’s age.
Just don’t go dissecting his golf game to find an indicator of the years on the odometer.
“He has a golf swing that is just rock solid,” said Sandy Tatum, former USGA President and himself a member of the Stanford athletic hall of fame.
“And from my observation, having watched him from the early ’70s to today, it has basically, fundamentally, never changed.”
That swing was on display again Wednesday, much to the delight of practice-round galleries waiting for a glimpse of the 1982 champion. Watson was serenaded by well-wishers lining Pebble’s fairways, many punctuating their encouragement with cries of “one more time, Tom.”
One woman even shouted a marriage proposal his way on Tuesday.
Eat your heart out, Adam Scott.
The nostalgia is running deep this week on the Monterey Peninsula. Many in the field have remarked that they view Pebble Beach as the home of golf in the United States. In that sense, Watson’s miraculous chip-in on No. 17 in ’82 – he prefers to call it “lucky” – could be considered the defining shot in the history of U.S. golf.
Sure there was the 1-iron Jack Nicklaus hit on the same hole on his way to victory in 1972, but as Steve Stricker remarked Tuesday, Watson called his shot. That has to count for something.
Watson can’t avoid the subject – not that he’s anxious to detach himself from history. The wedge he used to hole that chip is on display here. Watson recently recreated the shot for an instructional video (he made it again, but declined to mention how many tries it took), and he patiently posed for photos behind the green during practice rounds.
“This place brings back such wonderful memories for me,” Watson said.
But if we focus solely on the past, we’ll lose sight of another possibility – history in the making. We may very well be witnessing the greatest stretch of golf in the history of the game by a player of Watson’s age.
He was a missed putt (or a gust of wind) away from winning the British Open in July. In January, he notched a memorable victory over youngster Fred Couples in a Champions Tour event in Hawaii. He took his game to the Middle East in February and closed with a 68 to finish the European Tour’s Dubai Desert Classic in a tie for eighth place.
Then he electrified Augusta with an opening-round 67 at the Masters.
“No question about it,” Tatum said when asked if Watson was playing at a level never before seen from a player in his 60s. To what does he credit this unprecedented longevity? “He has an abiding, really profound love of playing the game,” Tatum said.
McIlroy, who recently played rounds with Watson at Augusta and in Dubai, sees no reason why Watson can’t contend at Pebble. At 7,040 yards, it’s a much less punitive layout distance-wise than other recent Open sites. Bethpage Black measured 7,445 yards.
“He still hits it as good as anyone out here,” McIlroy said.
Watson agrees he’s playing well. He loves the golf course. He is happy with his putting stroke.
But he’s dismissive of the historic context of his recent run.
“[Sam] Snead was so far superior to me,” Watson said. “Sam played such better golf. No, I was always in awe of Sam. He could play until he was 78 years old.”
Snead did become the oldest player to make the cut in a major, playing the weekend in the 1979 PGA Championship at the age of 67. Five years earlier, he had tied for third in the PGA.
Watson says he’s not sure how long the competitive fire will burn. He’s in good shape, he’s playing well and he considers himself first and foremost a golfer.
“And when I can’t do it anymore on a competitive level, it’s going to be a sad day.”
The odds are stacked against Watson here, of course. The field is loaded. The setup is perilous. And in a cruel twist of fate, it’s the 17th hole that Watson views as an X-factor. He birdied the hole three times in 1982, but he’s not sure he has the ability to hit the ball that far and to that small a target these days.
Pebble Beach has a knack for drawing hall-of-fame caliber golfers into the winner’s circle under U.S. Open conditions. There haven’t been any fluke winners here. Watson declined to draw any conclusions from that.
“Pick a name up there,” Watson said. “Is [Tiger] Woods going to do it? Is [Phil Mickelson] going to do it? Is Watson going to have a chance to do it?
“Who knows? Who knows?”