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So this time they put you on the revered hills of Augusta, fly the weather in from heaven and hire William Shakespeare to do the script, which calls for you to play golf directly behind The Man, Jack Nicklaus, where you have to watch him make seven birdies and stoop over so often removing the ball from the cup you get to thinking he's three feet tall. You're Tom Watson, and your reputation is that of a young guy who goes out for the last 18 holes of a tournament in a deep-sea diving helmet with a hara-kiri sword strapped to your waist. The wonderful old Masters. It always comes up with something different.
But what was most different last Sunday was Tom Watson himself. He was just about the guttiest golfer anyone had ever seen. He was under the most excruciating pressure from the first tee shot to the next-to-last putt. On every hole and standing over every single shot he was the Tom Watson who was supposed to think up a hook, a slice, a shank, anything outrageous, to take himself out of things. But for four long, thrilling hours all he did was fire a round of golf so unexpectedly brilliant that he not only won the Masters for the second major championship of his career, he also scored a clean knockout over Jack Nicklaus.
Look at it this way. For 16 holes Watson had to take a barrage of Nicklaus' body punches, any one of which, in the past, has been known to floor a lesser fellow. When Jack gets hot and begins a scorching round, everybody else falls down. Now the Masters not only had Nicklaus slugging away, but also Watson right there forced to watch it from a ringside seat. Tom Watson, mind you. The guy who had frittered away so many opportunities in other tournaments. Although he had won the British Open in 1975 and although he had taken the Crosby and San Diego this year, he had recently fallen into his old, errant ways.
There was the evidence of what had happened to him at Sawgrass in the Tournament Players Championship. With a two-stroke lead going into the final nine, he had come apart with a string of bogeys, hit his last tee shot into the water and left Jacksonville humiliated. A week later, in the Heritage Classic at Harbour Town, he played his way into a four-stroke lead with 18 to go—and then had come unpasted again. Thus, he arrived in Augusta as the man who had made winners out of Mark Hayes and Graham Marsh. In the conversations at the Masters, and especially after he had taken the lead in the second round, all anyone talked about with Watson was why he couldn't swallow.
So this was the man who on the last day of the Masters had to follow Jack Nicklaus around while thousands of golf-wise people expected that he would ask to be excused after about the 15th hole and run off into the woods and hide.
This, however, was what we must now assume to be the new Tom Watson. This was the Watson who was tied with Rod Funseth for the Masters lead after 36 holes, who was in that glamorous knot with Ben Crenshaw after three rounds, who had to withstand a birdie-for-birdie fight with surprising Rik Massengale over the first nine holes on Sunday, and who at the same time stepped up to take everything Nicklaus could throw at him in the form of golf shots and reputation. He endured all this to shoot a finishing 67 for a total of 276 and a two-stroke victory over Nicklaus.
Watson's most stunning moment was his 15-foot birdie putt that sneaked into the cup at the 17th green, bringing forth a great roar from the gallery that must have swept like a hurricane over Nicklaus, just ahead on the 18th fairway. That was the crucial moment when he went ahead of Nicklaus, to stay. That was the scrapbook moment, Watson slugging at the air with his fist and spinning around as the putt disappeared.
But there were innumerable other moments. There were the birdies he tore out of the front nine at the 5th (12 feet), the 6th (12 feet), the 7th (four feet) and the 8th (15 feet), these coming at a time when Nicklaus was searing the first nine in three under par, and when Massengale was going four under.
Interestingly, Watson had begun the round, as his wife Linda put it, "unreligiously." Hooked the drive at the first, missed the green and had to chip up and make a tough three-footer for a par. Bunkered at the second, no birdie. Meanwhile, Nicklaus was making consecutive birdies to set the tone of the day.
Only at the beginning, and again briefly at the 10th hole where Watson saw a very short putt spin out for a bogey, did he look like the Watson of the recent past. One has to credit the mind. On Tuesday of Masters week he had gone to another golf course to work with Byron Nelson, who is among his golfing shrinks. They had concentrated not only on his swing, but also on his tempo, his style. Slowing down was the object. Watson worked on taking more time walking, setting up, lining up putts, everything.