Tom Watson recently relived a golf moment frozen in time—and, now, captured in frosting. To celebrate Watson's 50th birthday, the organizers of a fund-raising skins game in Kansas City, Mo., presented him with a cake decorated to depict his famous chip-in at the 17th hole at Pebble Beach that won the 1982 U.S. Open. The rough, in which Watson's ball was nestled, was made of green icing, while the green was made of chocolate. A small candy man represented Watson. The cake was a cute idea, but it reminded Watson of a word Jack Nicklaus had used in warning him about the Senior tour. "It's no cakewalk out there, Tom," Nicklaus said. "These guys can flat-out play."
Nicklaus, Watson learned during his Senior tour debut last week at the Comfort Classic at Brickyard Crossing in Indianapolis, was right. Watson finished 22nd, nine shots behind winner Gil Morgan, giving no indication that he's ready to take over for Hale Irwin, who since turning 50 in 1995 has won 25 tournaments, including five this year.
What Watson did do, though, was grab everyone's attention, which was what this tired tour was hoping for. The Indianapolis fans, perhaps inspired by billboards around town touting Watson as INDY'S NEWEST DRIVER, flocked to his gallery, particularly after he opened with a six-under-par 66. He also received a warm welcome from his fellow Seniors, who sense that Watson could be their point man for the new millennium. "We've got the dominant player of the 1980s, which is extremely good for us," said tour veteran Dave Stockton. "We went through a slump, or whatever you call it, where not many guys came out. Now with Tom, Tom Kite [he turns 50 on Dec. 9] and Lanny Wadkins [Dec. 5], they're coming out in bunches."
The Senior tour certainly can use a shot in the arm. The stars around whom the circuit once revolved—Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Lee Trevino—are just a sideshow now. Lesser but more competitive names command most of the airtime, which is one reason ratings are in steep decline. The Comfort Classic was telecast by ESPN and, on Sunday, by ABC. Both networks rode Watson hard. "I'm sure the tour wants to raise its rights fees," says Jack Graham, the producer of ABC golf, "but ESPN is probably saying, 'Look, the ratings are down 18 percent.' I don't think Tom Watson or anybody else is going to make the impact on ratings that Tiger Woods does on the PGA Tour, but if Watson can stop that slide, that helps everybody."
To make a difference, Watson needs to win, although it would be unfair to say his debut was a failure because he didn't this time out. Irwin's first victory came in his fifth start, and he won only twice in his first full year. He went on a tear after that when, not coincidentally, he led the tour in putting. While Watson putts much better than he did in the mid-'90s, when he fought the yips, he still struggles on the green. He ranked a respectable 25th in putting at the Brickyard, but if he is to challenge Irwin, he'll have to do considerably better than that. Putting was one reason Nicklaus stayed competitive for so long. If he ever had a putting slump, no one remembers it.
Says Watson, "Jack once told me, 'When you get older, you're going to hit the ball better than you ever have. It's all the other things you've got to keep going.' He was right. This game is all about robbing Peter to pay Paul. The '90s were difficult because putting had been my strength. I started losing my touch in '82, '83 and '84. I don't know what happened. I look at it somewhat philosophically because I broke more hearts on the green than I probably deserved to, and it's averaging out."
In his first round as a Senior, Watson needed only 26 putts. On the weekend he looked less confident, like a man trying to manufacture a stroke. He shot a 69 on Saturday and on Sunday was still within sight of Morgan until three-putting from the fringe for bogey at the 9th and then missing a five-footer for par at the 10th. His finish was particularly ugly. He pushed his approach at the par-418th into a stream, took a drop, pitched on and then three-jacked from 10 feet, missing a three-footer. Give him a par there instead of a triple bogey for a 75, and he would've finished 11th.
Obviously, Watson is rusty. Since May he has played only the three majors—eight competitive rounds all told. Two weeks ago he married Hilary Watson, the former wife of Tour pro Denis Watson, and as a result didn't practice going into Indy. "With everything that's going on in his life, he probably came out here too soon," said Bruce Edwards, Watson's longtime caddie. "On the other hand, sitting at home isn't going to accomplish anything. Things have been so chaotic for him the last few years. Now that he's happier, it should pay dividends."
Not only does Watson have a new tour and a new wife, but he is also beginning a new life. The Watsons live on a ranch 26 miles south of Kansas City and plan to spend the winter in Fort Lauderdale so Hilary can be near her three children, ages 8, 10 and 13, who attend school there. Tom's daughter, Meg, is a sophomore at Duke. His son, Michael, is a high school junior in Kansas City. Watson intends to work on his game over the winter and enter about 20 Senior events next year, including most of the early ones in Florida, plus the Masters, the British Open, the Colonial and, if he gets exemptions, the U.S. Open and the PGA. "He still has that fire," Hilary says. "He's incredibly competitive. I can tell on the tennis court—I can beat him in tennis. I hate to admit it, but he beats me in pool."
Watson prefers not to talk about his life-changing events, including his divorce a year ago from Linda, his wife of 25 years, and how it affected his play and motivation. "Suffice it to say that I'm happy now," he says. "If you're happy, you play well."