Tom Watson all of a sudden is 63, and his self-deprecating sense of humor gravitates easily to that.
“Smoke and mirrors,” he’ll tell you, enable him to keep competing.
And also refining the underrated art of napping, like with the “few Z’s” he said he caught in a fitness trailer Wednesday at the Omaha Country Club, where he will begin competition today in the U.S. Senior Open.
However young he might look and feel, he says, smiling, only tends to last until he watches one of “these kids hit the ball after what I think is a good drive — and they’re 30 or 40 yards ahead of me.”
Not there aren’t certain advantages that come with maturity.
“One good thing about my age, time zones don’t affect me like they used to as a kid,” said Watson, who nonetheless wasn’t sure that would help him be clear-headed for next week’s British Open at Muirfield, Scotland, where past success and familiarity figure to help him. “If I can remember how to play it. My age, you forget a lot of stuff.”
Behind the humor, though, there is this:
Sitting at a table to speak with his hometown newspaper after a news conference, the Kansas City treasure said he was increasingly conscious of the diminishment of his driving distance. And the only punch line that followed was a thud, words that were hard to hear even if you know nothing lasts forever — especially not the things you might take for granted.
“It’s the first year it’s happened,” he said. “And when the distance diminishes, the speed and the power diminish, you start thinking to yourself, ‘Well, I have to be better in all other facets of the game to be able to compete, because I used to rely on that distance and that power to compete.’ Once you lose it, it’s like a hitter. You lose that quickness, you lose the ability to see the ball. And then as a result your success rate goes down.
“And I’m beginning to see that in my game. I don’t know how long it’s going to take for me to get to the point where I say, ‘I can’t do this anymore; I can’t compete anymore.’
“But this year may be the beginning of the end.”
That doesn’t mean it’s imminent, just that “the end game is getting nearer” and there’s no real way to know when it might arrive.
Watson still will “rate” every shot he takes and give himself a “quiet grade” for every round he plays and still simmer within to compete.
And he still has enough good days that he feels more as if he is merely grasping to regain consistency than groping for something that isn’t there.
And he is energized, maybe even consumed, by the honor of being named captain of the 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup team, an honor he said he’d waited 20 years to get to do again.
His responsibilities include what he called the mundane, such as “picking out the clothes,” but the more substantial matter of picking the team.
“I’m the stage manager,” he said. “I set the stage. I say, ‘OK, here’s your place on the stage. You have to be there by a certain cue (and then) you perform.’ The Europeans have waxed us seven out of the last nine times, and I’m getting sick and tired of that.
“And I’m hoping the guys on the team will feel the same way and will do anything they possibly can to win.”
The dynamic of that role seemed to Watson a parallel to George Brett, serving since May 30 as hitting coach for the Royals.
“He still looks to me like he wants to be out there,” Watson said. “In the worst way: ‘Put me in, coach. Put me in. I want to play again. I can do it.’ He’s got that fire, and I think we’re similar in the way we look at our games.”
There are, of course, other parallels to Brett. They are two of the most essential and enduring athletics faces, personalities and performers in Kansas City sports history, coming of age in virtual tandem in the mid-1970s.
Brett made his major-league debut 40 years ago this summer. Watson won his first PGA Tour title at the 1974 Western Open.
After an eternal (by baseball standards) and Hall of Fame career, Brett retired in 1993; Watson has kept going and going and going, uniquely representing Kansas City with memorable triumphs and his boundless grace through decades of sparse professional team performances to be proud of.
Watson shrugs, a bit sheepishly, when asked about that place on the scene. He simply says, “I just do what I do,” then adds, “I’m a homer, I love Kansas City, I love our teams, and I want them to be successful. We’ve had such a long dry run, with the exception of Sporting KC, just way too long a dry run.
“But it looks as if (the Royals and Chiefs) have done something really constructive this year.”
As he’s been doing all along: He owns 39 PGA Tour victories and eight on the PGA European Tour and 14 on the Champions tour since 1999.
As recently as 2009, he had a bead on his sixth British Open championship only to overshoot on the 72nd hole and fall to Stewart Cink in the playoff.
“The one thing that came out of it,” Watson said, “is that I (had) so many people writing me, e-mailing me, saying, ‘Tom, I was giving up on myself. I wasn’t going to do something in my life that I just didn’t feel like I could do any more because I was too old. You’ve given me the inspiration to go get motivated and do it again. Because if you can do it, I can do it.’ ”
He continues to inspire people now, of course, as a statesman and a competitor who just might again find the consistency he craves.
But one day before too long, these things will be a legacy, not an ongoing competitive demonstration.
Cherish it now and until then, because this year might be the beginning of the end.
“It’s reality,” Watson said. “I’m a realist.”