If Watson had heard that, he might have winced. Even McCarron admitted that—like nearly every other golfer with a heart—he would like to help Watson with his putting problem, if he could.
Every short putt that Watson misses—and there were the usual collection of embarrassing examples at English Turn—spawns at least a dozen putative solutions from concerned observers. One club pro even called the New Orleans press room on Sunday morning with a cure-all and wanted to know if he could talk to Watson before he started the final round. In part because of his openness in discussing the subject and in part because it's so painfully obvious and so frequently showcased, Watson's difficulty with short putts is universally known. It has actually come to this: When he sank a four-footer on the practice putting green on Saturday afternoon, the spectators applauded.
Watson had reason to be optimistic in New Orleans, to think that this could be the week he would win on Tour for the first time since the 1987 Nabisco Championships. Although he still stood more confidently over a 12-footer than a four-footer, he was making at least as many testers as he was missing, and his putting, overall, had been good in 1996. Coming into the week he would have ranked firth in the Tour's putting stats if he had played the minimum number of rounds needed to be included. It's not a position he can expect to keep. The stats for last week are as telling as the slow-motion television replays of all the missed piddlers. Watson ranked second in greens hit in regulation, but among those who made the cut, he was 48th out of 72 in putting, which was why he ranked 53rd in birdie-conversion percentage.
Two years ago Watson was so confident that his improved ball striking would be complemented by a mended putting stroke that he frequently said he would win that season. He came close, but at Pebble Beach he was outputted down the stretch by an equally yippy Johnny Miller. Then at Turnberry, Watson killed his chances for a sixth British Open when, moments after assuming the lead on Sunday, he made two straight double bogeys, each time missing a short putt.
At New Orleans, Watson's rhetoric was more subdued. "Many times a disappointment has propelled me to a win the next week," he said. "Maybe this time it could be next week or the Masters." The trouble was, Watson uttered those consoling words on Saturday, when he was just two strokes off the lead, shots he had squandered with short misses.
On Sunday, Watson offered explanations that sounded like excuses. "Seventy-four is not a terrible score," he said. "It was a tough day to make putts because of the wind. You not only had to read the putt, but you also had to play the wind." The wind was strong, blowing at about 30 mph with gusts up to 40 mph, and the scores were high. Only one player broke 70, Brad Fabel, who jumped 29 places with a three-under-par 69 to finish tied for 10th. Twelve players shot rounds in the 80s. All the things Watson said about the difficulty of the conditions were true, but the defensive phrases sounded out of place coming from a man who always takes his medicine.
He had put himself in position to win. By the time the leaders turned for home, the tournament had become a two-man race. Both McCarron and Watson were level through nine holes, McCarron still 12 under for the week, Watson 10 under, while the rest of the contenders had bogeyed themselves out of contention. The next stretch of holes "is where I blew it," Watson said of bogeys at 10, 12, 13 and 14, the last two a result of missed putts of less than five feet.
Watson finished by sinking a 45-footer for birdie, just the second all day at the 18th. That earned him sole possession of second place and a check for $129,600. "It was some consolation, but not much," he said glumly. Asked if each defeat inflicts a little more damage to his psyche, Watson at first said no, then admitted, "It takes an ounce of flesh—not a pound, but it takes an ounce."