This story came years before the Hall of Fame career, before the two green jackets and five British Open championships, before the iconic duels with Jack Nicklaus and the ever-so-close call at Turnberry in 2009.
The story, in other words, came before Tom Watson became Tom Watson.
The year was 1970, and Watson was a 20-year-old kid from Kansas City, an amateur golfer driving down Magnolia Lane at Augusta National Golf Club for the first time. Watson was playing his first Masters that week, and as you can imagine, the setup was like a dream.
He shacked shack up with the other amateurs in the Crow’s Nest, a 30-by-40-feet living quarters in the attic of Augusta’s famed clubhouse. He played four or five practice rounds, marveling at all the layers of green — from the regal jackets to the fancy napkins to the course’s unforgiving putting surfaces. He also tested himself against the world’s best golfers, which is really all he wanted to do.
“I just remember everything being so green,” Watson says now. “Driving down Magnolia Lane there to the main clubhouse, in the shade of the Magnolia trees, it’s quite something. You can see the white clubhouse through the tunnel of trees, and that was exciting.”
Forty-five years later, Watson will return to Augusta National this week for his 42nd Masters. He is 65 now, the same age as Jack Nicklaus when the Golden Bear played his final rounds at Augusta in 2005. Watson is in the twilight of one of golf’s legendary careers, but even now, at this stage, on the eve of another Masters, Watson is not one to revel in nostalgia.
When Watson returns to Magnolia Lane this week, he will return with the same fire — the same drive, the same goals — as that 20-year-old kid back in 1970.
What is the best score I can shoot? How do I accomplish this score?
“I still go into the Masters with the same thought that I had before,” Watson says, “which is to compete at my best level and try to shoot the lowest score I possibly can.”
There is no way to quantify this, of course, but the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club during Masters week may well be the most nostalgic place in human existence.
Each year, the fans pack the galleries and pay homage to the old champions, who come back year after year. Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer will awake before dawn on Thursday morning, trot out to hit the ceremonial first tee shots, and bask in the cheers and the old stories. The tales and legends of 78 prior tournaments — from Snead to Hogan to Woods — are interwoven into the fabric of the place.
Watson understands all of this, of course, and the memories of winning green jackets in 1977 and 1981 are good memories. But Watson has always been less golf romantic and more golf pragmatist. In the days before he left for Augusta, he recalled his first Masters for a few moments and then turned his attention to this year. Namely, how he might make the cut for the first time since he finished tied for 18th in 2010 at the age of 60.
“I haven’t been very successful the last several years,” Watson says.
Watson still believes that on the right day, at his best, under the right conditions, he can shoot in the 60s and compete with “the kids,” as he refers to them now. The truth, though, is that the setup of the course — and more specifically, the length — makes this very difficult. Back in 1977, when Watson won his first Masters, the course played at just more than 7,000 yards and the champion walked away with a prize of $40,000. Nowadays, with the course lengthened to combat a Tiger-inspired generation of mashers, the course will play at more than 7,400 yards. This does not bode well for Watson.
“The course is too long for me,” he says.
Watson has been saying this for years, and it remains true. But in a general sense, it can lead to something between resignation and frustration. Watson can still hit the shots. He still has the game to navigate the course. But he is not quite long enough to put himself in position to craft the shots he needs at a course like Augusta.
“I can’t hit the shots which hold the greens,” Watson says, plainly. “I come in there too low and I can’t get them to stop.”
At this point, Watson says, he hopes for dry and fast conditions. If the fairways are a little firmer, the course will play a little shorter, and that means good news for him. But regardless of the conditions, regardless of the challenges, his goal has not changed.
“I want to shoot in the 60s,” Watson says. “If my game is on, I can do that.”
So, no, Tom Watson does not luxuriate in the past, nor spend much time trafficking in the currency of nostalgia. But even he knows the moment is coming. Later this summer, Watson will travel to St. Andrews in Scotland and play the British Open for the final time.
It’s one of 12 professional events he will play this year, and it will surely be the most emotional.
“I have mixed emotions,” Watson says, “being the last of anything sometimes brings a sense of finality that you don’t want to deal with. But on the other hand, it’s part of life.”
Watson can remember playing with Nicklaus 10 years ago, when his good friend played his final professional event at the same course. The cameras clicked. The tears flowed. The final hole was the worst — and best.
“I was crying like a baby walking up the last hole with him,” Watson says, “seeing the greatest player that’s ever played play his final competitive round of professional golf. And that was special. That was very, very special.”
The story leads to a simple question: If this will be Watson’s final turn at the British Open, how much longer will he play the Masters? Watson isn’t sure, other than to say that this week won’t be his final trip to Augusta.
By virtue of two green jackets, of course, Watson has a lifetime invitation to compete inside the ropes at Augusta. And for now, he still feels he has a few good rounds left. The course may be too long. And that isn’t changing. But when Watson steps to the first tee on Thursday morning, the old fire will still burn.
“I’ll play it again, at least once,” Watson says. “We’ll see what happens. My ability to hit the ball and play that golf course is limited now. But I still believe that I can do it if I’m really on my game.”
To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.