The protagonists in the most memorable golf dramas often seem to be led along by some invisible hand. A dazed and dehydrated Ken Venturi won the 1964 U.S. Open by listening to a mantra in his head that directed him to keep going, to put one foot in front of the other. En route to his epic victory at the 1986 Masters, Jack Nicklaus saw contenders eerily fall away as if deferring to the greatest player ever so he could achieve his crowning validation. When a shaky Johnny Miller won at Pebble Beach in 1994, he mentally transformed himself into his carefree teenage son before putting. Ben Crenshaw felt Harvey Penick's gentle touch on his shoulder throughout his 1995 Masters triumph.
But when 46-year-old Tom Watson ended a nine-year victory drought on Sunday and gave the golf world its biggest thrill of the year by winning the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, he did it the hard way. Sure, he holed a few unlikely putts and a couple of sand shots on Friday and Saturday. But on Sunday, the day that has induced a Pavlovian freeze in Watson almost every time he has been in contention during the last five years, the flinty and determined yet vulnerable hero had to overcome an assortment of challenges, from an early case of the yips to the pressure of a tightrope finish.
"The beauty and the agony of the game is that some days it is so easy and other days it is so tough," Watson said after defeating David Duval by two strokes over a soggy Muirfield Village Golf Club course, shooting a closing-round 70 for a 14-under-par total of 274. "You adjust and you find a way to do it. What I was always so good at was, even though I couldn't find [my groove], sometimes I still won tournaments."
And so he did on Sunday. Spectators gave him standing ovations on every hole of his final round. His victory recalled his glory years, from 1977 to 1984, when he won 35 tournaments, including seven of his eight majors. But the Watson of today has neither the same strengths nor the same weaknesses as the old one. He used to be an erratic ball striker with a bold and deadly putting stroke. He is now one of the game's most impressive players from tee to green—but one who undoes his efforts with a nervous, often tentative prod with the short stick.
"I've learned that if you don't putt well," said Watson, "you don't win."
Watson's putting woes began in the mid-1980s. They first drew close attention during the '87 U.S. Open, at which Watson missed three-foot putts on the 1st hole of both the third and final rounds. He lost the event by a stroke to Scott Simpson. Later that year Watson won the Nabisco Championships, his last PGA Tour victory until Sunday.
In the nine years since that Nabisco triumph, Watson has struggled mightily to overcome his yips. His labors on the greens—the most gut-wrenching kind of stroke-wasting putting—have at times been brutal to watch, the only consolation to his fans being the knowledge that Watson would be sturdy enough to weather the experience.
During his slump Watson became perhaps the most sympathetic figure in the game. He opened 1994 by three-putting away the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am to the equally yipsy Miller. He was in contention after three rounds at each of that year's first three majors, only to shoot a final-day 74 on each occasion to finish no better than tied for sixth. On the final day of the '94 British Open at Turnberry, he took the lead briefly on the front nine, then double-bogeyed consecutive holes and fell away. "That was my most discouraging moment," he admits. "The putter felt like an anvil."
This year, in March, Watson had a chance to win the Freeport McDermott Classic in New Orleans. He entered the final round two strokes behind Scott McCarron, and he was still two back at the turn. Again, however, he lost his putting touch and made four quick bogeys. He finished second, five strokes behind McCarron. At the Masters, Watson missed the cut for the first time in 21 years as a professional—by one shot—when he five-putted the 16th hole on Friday. Coming into the Memorial, Watson had played in 141 Tour events without a win. On 31 occasions he had started the final round within five shots of the lead and had come up empty.
What made the Memorial different, however, was that for the first time since his Nabisco victory, Watson led after 54 holes, despite facing one of the year's strongest fields. Because it typically falls two weeks before the U.S. Open—as it does this year—and because Muirfield is such a highly regarded layout, the Memorial is a popular Tour stop.