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This is the year the classics came back: John Elway won a Super Bowl; Jack Nicklaus made a Sunday charge at the Masters; Larry Bird, coaching the Indiana Pacers, is trying to stop Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, and Tom Watson did his best Ben Hogan impersonation.
In 1967, when he was 54—an age that was considered Jurassic in the dark days before the Senior tour—Hogan tied for third in the Colonial National Invitation behind a young hotshot named Dave Stockton, who was winning for the first time on Tour. Last week, 31 years later, the 48-year-old Watson sprung a surprise of his own. Looking as if he had just stepped out of his exhibit at the new World Golf Hall of Fame, which he had visited on his way to Fort Worth, Watson outran a pack of younger pursuers to unexpectedly win the MasterCard Colonial.
The victory was one to savor. There won't be many more, history tells us. "Winning at my age is a rarity," says Watson, who ended a nine-year drought on Tour two years ago this week, at the Memorial. "I didn't know if I would win another tournament on this Tour. I'm seriously thinking about the Senior tour."
The timing of Watson's rejuvenation couldn't be better. This week he's skipping the Memorial so he can attend the high school graduation of his daughter, Meg. His next start will be in the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, in San Francisco, where he finished runner-up to Scott Simpson in 1987. In July the British Open returns to Royal Birkdale, where Watson won in 1983. In August, on the day after the final round of the PGA, Watson will return to Poppy Hills to finish the El Niño-delayed AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, in which he shares the lead with 18 holes to play. Considering that Watson has already won $832,385 in 1998—the most he has earned in a season in his 28-year pro career—this classic comeback still has plenty of growth potential.
The difference in Watson's play this year has been his putting. He ranked 20th on the Tour on the greens before Colonial, and last week tied for second behind Jim Gallagher Jr. Watson's putting woes date back to the mid-'80s. "I basically stopped winning in '84," he says. "Over the last six or seven years, I felt my swing was good enough to win. I just needed to get my short putting back to where it was."
For most of the '90s, Watson was the poster boy for the yips, golf's ugliest condition. "You saw it. I knew it," he says. "You can't lie about it." He was bombarded with hundreds of putters and tips from fans, but it wasn't until early this year, when he focused on completing his follow-through, that he began to see improvement.
There has been talk that Watson's improved stroke is tied to a decision last fall to quit drinking. It's not a subject that Watson, who has always carefully guarded his private life, will discuss. Nor is he interested in talking about the breakup of his marriage last year, a divorce that is likely to cost him millions. Still, you can see how an aging superstar could be motivated and energized by all the tumult.
Five of Watson's 39 victories came in the British Open, and Colonial's hard-baked fairways were positively Scottish, even if the greens, watered to offset the steamy heat, were soft enough to hold a well-struck shot. Thirty-three players averaged more than 300 yards per drive. Even Justin Leonard, not known for his big stick, uncorked a drive that measured 372 yards. (Asked to explain, he feigned offense. "What do you mean, what happened?" he said.) Watson reached the 599-yard 11th in two last Friday, hitting a three-wood approach that rolled to the back of the green, a distance of about 290 yards. "I felt like Tiger Woods," he said.
Watson's short game was typically solid, and at times exceptional. On Saturday he saved par from greenside bunkers on three straight holes, the ball lipping out on two of the shots. When he sank a birdie putt from the fringe on the next hole and finished the front nine with only 10 putts, he figured this might be his week.
Watson began the final round tied with Harrison Frazar, a boyhood chum of Leonard's, and the gritty Jim Furyk. Watson took the lead at the feared 3rd hole, a 476-yard par-4 that bends to the left, sinking a 12-footer for birdie while Furyk missed a two-foot par putt.