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They became friends two decades ago, when each man, in his own way, ruled golf. Sandy Tatum was in his late 50s, a San Francisco lawyer, a scratch golfer, the president of the United States Golf Association, handsome and erudite and opinionated. Tom Watson was in his late 20s, and when he drove the ball in the fairway, nobody could beat him, not Jack Nicklaus, not Seve Ballesteros, certainly not Tatum, not even with two shots a side. In 1987, when the U.S. Open was last played at Olympic, Tatum's old club, Watson finished second, a shot behind Scott Simpson, and Tatum saw each of his friend's 278 strokes. Next week the Open returns to Olympic, and Watson and Tatum do, too. They will return as changed men. No, that's not quite correct. As evolved men.
Power just fades. Tatum turned the reigns over to another man, then came somebody else, and now there have been 10 USGA presidents since Tatum ran the show. His calls to Far Hills, N.J., are returned, of course, but at golf's central headquarters his most important and novel ideas are greeted with polite murmurs and thin smiles. With Watson, on his playing field, the story was much the same: First he started missing the long ones, then the intermediate ones, finally, gallingly, the short ones, and the door was open. Curtis Strange was the first guy through it, and a bunch of others followed him. It was no solace to Watson that none of his successors dominated the way he did.
The end of the Watson reign came 11 years ago, at Olympic. Watson missed a short putt on the 1st green in the Saturday round, then another short one on the 1st on Sunday. Tatum cringed, as any friend would. But Watson just stood there and took it, a stoic, an honorary Scotsman. He has always been that way when he has failed. You examine failure to learn from it, he says.
Now, miraculously, but not suddenly, everything has changed. "The most extraordinary thing is that Watson is 48 years old and properly is counted among the best players in the world," says Tatum, who is 77 Tatum says this boyishly, exuberantly. When Watson plays well, people congratulate Tatum as if he played the shots himself. Watson has a golfing aura about him, Tatum says, the way his first golf hero, Ben Hogan, did. In a way, Watson allows Tatum to be 20 or 30 or 40 years old again.
Now Watson has done something Tatum did with partial success, something mighty Hogan could not do at all. He has cured himself of the most dreadful of golfing illnesses, the yips. Watson has rediscovered his putting stroke after it had been AWOL for nearly a decade. The secret, he says, is accelerating his stroke through the ball. His putting is once more on a level with the rest of his game, which is more precise than it has ever been, although not as powerful. It's hard to believe, but true: Watson's fans no longer have to wish and pray and turn away when he stands over a four-footer.
Some people, of course, are still in denial about the turnaround. Watson's closest friends have been the most resistant, for they have the most at stake emotionally. Last month, on the Sunday of Colonial, Tatum was at a wedding and didn't record the final-round coverage, worried that the overt act of taping might jinx Watson. He didn't need to worry. Watson didn't hole any cross-country putts, but he missed nothing in the gag zone either. After 18 tries at Colonial, he won for the first time. There's nothing wobbly about Watson's putting stroke anymore. "I still get nervous before I putt," he says, "but by the time I'm standing over them, I feel confident."
Had Tatum taped the Sunday round, the outcome would have been precisely the same. Yet he remains cautious. "Watson must recognize that he will miss the occasional short one, but that doesn't mean a total relapse," Tatum says. "What's critical is to carry on after the miss. A former yipper is always in recovery." Hearing, by relay, these words from Tatum, Watson nods appreciatively. There are things, in golf and in life, that a man of 77 knows that a man of 48 does not.
Watson is trying to make up for lost time. He figures his 10 years of lousy putting cost him half a dozen titles, maybe double that. He thinks that if Olympic is playing firm and fast, as it was 11 years ago, he can win there. (If the course, courtesy of El Nino, is soft and soggy, he expects to struggle. He says he no longer has the strength to play shots out of long, wet rough.) In July the British Open returns to Royal Birkdale, where Watson won his fifth and last Open, in 1983. One more British Open victory and he matches Harry Vardon's record. In August, at Sahalee Country Club in Redmond, Wash., Watson will try to win the one major he now covets most, the PGA Championship, which he has played in annually since 1973 without a victory. He needs the PGA for a career professional grand slam, which has been accomplished by only Hogan, Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen and Gary Player. That's the gaping hole in Watson's professional life.
His private life is another matter. Last November he quit drinking. In December, Linda Watson, Tom's wife of 25 years, filed for divorce. Later that month his 22-year relationship with Ram took a turn when his contract with the club manufacturer expired. Watson is shopping for a new deal, with Ram among his suitors. Over the past several years, he has reconciled with his father, mending a relationship whose strains date back to 1990. Now he is starting to think about the next phase of his life, about what to do after he turns 50, which happens in 15 months. Watson has always lived in fishbowls, the PGA Tour, upper-crust Kansas City, Mo., and the fishbowl population loves to talk. Meg, the Watsons' 18-year-old daughter, will attend Duke in the fall, and not Stanford, her father's alma mater. In the bowls this decision is being interpreted—wrongly, absurdly—as an act of rebellion on Meg's part. (After all, she's not going to her mother's alma mater, Mills College, either.) People talk. Watson knows that. He just doesn't understand why.
Watson is not, bless his heart, a modern. He realizes this is the age of the public confessional, but he wants no part of it. He discusses intimate things with the people he is closest to, Tatum and Chuck Rubin, his brother-in-law (for now) and manager, and not with you and me and millions of other strangers. Ask him about his relationship with his father, Ray, and he says, "I love my dad." That's it. The rest of it—the nature of his relationships with his father, his son, his daughter, his wife, even his caddie—is his business and not yours.