The Crosby, in January, was Watson's first U.S. victory in 15 months. Year before last, 1975, had been a fine one for him. He had won the British Open, his first major title, the Byron Nelson Classic and the World Series of Golf. He was on his way. After the World Series, Nicklaus, beaten by two strokes, said, "He knows exactly where he's going. Straight ahead. Nothing distracts him. He has great ability, super confidence and just enough cockiness. He's not a comer, he has arrived."
But in 1976 things began to go wrong with Watson's swing. "I was not hitting the ball very well all year," he says. "I was throwing the club at the ball, releasing too soon and hitting a variety of bad shots." One bad shot led to another, and he finished the year without a tour win and five places lower on the money list, dropping from seventh to 12th.
"I was a little bit discouraged," he says, "but I kept on fighting, kept on practicing—the wrong things—and always thinking, 'There are better times ahead.' "
Trying is a recurring theme in Watson's public statements. "Damn it," he said, allowing himself a rare oath after he had won the British Open, "anything can happen in this game of golf. Never give up and never say die. If a person gives up once, there is always the chance he will do it again and again. I'll never get out on the golf course and give up. You've got to have guts."
"He's got a garbage can full of guts," Hubert Green once said of Watson.
When Watson was not trying last year, he was listening, mainly to Byron Nelson. Watson spent three days in October at Nelson's Fairway Ranch in Roanoke, Texas, just north of Fort Worth. The two made a complete inventory of Tom's game. They played and practiced each day at Preston Trail, Nelson's club in Dallas, and in the evenings they ate Louise Nelson's cooking and talked. "One night," says Watson, "Byron brought out an old ragged box, with pictures of his past falling out of it, of when he and Louise were married and how they grew up in Texarkana. They are really kind people to take me in and treat me like their son."
"First you must know," says Nelson of those three days, "that Tom was a good player to begin with, a young man with a lot of talent. But he felt he was not the player he should be, even though he won a lot of money. He wanted to get better, and that attitude is very important in golf."
Soon after Watson left Texas he was beginning to hit irons like Nelson, one of the greatest iron players ever. "On the 14th hole at Preston Trail one day," Watson says, "I hit a bunch of two-irons that were all within 15 feet of each other." (A famous story about Nelson is that one afternoon he noticed, to his mild surprise, that he had hit two balls into divots he had taken during a morning round. And in the 1939 Open, which he won, he hit the pins six times with six different clubs.)
Nelson encouraged Watson to relax his right side slightly and to keep his legs driving through the shots. He also worked on Watson's tempo, and that, as much as anything, was what won him the Masters two weeks ago. "Tom was too fast, too fidgety at the address. His waggle was too nervous," says Nelson.
(Only once in the fierce heat of that final round at Augusta did Watson feel he had rushed a shot, and that was off the 1st tee. At the par-3 16th, for instance, when he and Nicklaus were tied at 11 under par, and Watson knew he was going to have to make a birdie in the next three holes to win, he hit a five-iron—smoothly, gracefully, effortlessly—over the pond and straight at the flag, which was tucked in the back left corner of the green. The putt for a birdie was 15 feet, and he missed it, but the tempo of that swing told the story of what was to come.)