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Tom Watson has two smiles. Everyone remembers his exuberant grin when he danced on the 17th green at Pebble Beach after chipping in to sew up the 1982 U.S. Open. More often, the public sees the tight-lipped smile of a preoccupied man—nothing more than an economical turning up of the corners of the mouth.
Last Thursday the devilish 18th hole at Bay Hill in Orlando drew Watson's smile so tight that his lips seemed about to snap. Through 17 holes of the opening round of the Bay Hill Classic, Watson had been playing his best golf of a slump-ridden season, tied for the tournament lead at four under. With the pin planted spitting distance from the water on a narrow elbow of green bordered by bunkers and bleachers, Watson slashed a five-iron from the right rough that sailed left and long. His ball hit halfway up in the crowded bleachers, took an unpredictable carom over the top rail, bounced on a cart path and hopped across the street out of bounds. After a drop, Watson's second effort out of the thick Bermuda rough found the long grass short of the green, and when it was over Watson had a triple-bogey 7.
Jack Nicklaus, who had spoiled his own good round by sculling a one-iron into the water on the par-3 17th, grinned when told of Watson's bad break. "You mean if it hadn't hit the stands and the cart path and the street," he wondered aloud, "it would have hit close to the hole?" No, probably not.
"It wasn't a very good shot, let's put it that way," Watson said afterward, his smile a little more strained than Nicklaus'. "I hate to end a round like that. Still, I hit some good shots today. I'm one under par. I'm not that far off the lead."
Watson hadn't been within sniffing distance of a tournament lead for months. He did win the season opener in Tucson in January, but that was match play, and he was seeded into the round of 16. Since then Watson, 34, has played his worst stretch of golf in years. He missed cuts in three straight tournaments—San Diego, the Bing Crosby Pro-Am and Hawaii—and finished 60th in Los Angeles. In Honolulu, the low point, his misbehaving driver infected his usually reliable short game and finally his normally unflappable disposition. The nadir came on the 13th at Waialae Country Club when Watson took two strokes trying to hit his partly submerged ball out of a water hazard. Slogging up the bank in muddy shoes, Watson bawled out his caddie, Bruce Edwards, for walking away with the bag. "He blew some steam off, and I was the one it was directed at," says Edwards, who can't recall a similar display of temper in the almost 11 years he has caddied for Watson. "You could see it coming to a head."
Actually, the perfection-seeking Watson has been dissatisfied with his game for more than two years now, even though he has won a U.S. Open and two British Opens in that span. Watson has experimented with various gimmicks to get back the sensation of extending the club-face down the target line after impact. "I'm trying to stay over the ball longer," Watson said at Bay Hill. To the same question, hours later, he replied, "I'm using a little more hands in my swing lately." A day later he said, "I was basically trying to set the club a little earlier in the swing." Was he being intentionally enigmatic? No. The truth is, in recent months he has flirted with a dozen or more swing adjustments and mental concepts. The technical vocabulary of golf being what it is, none of it conveys much meaning when reduced to print, but the impact on his scores is easy to measure. Before Bay Hill, Watson's stroke average was 73.64, ranking him 143rd on the tour.
The most baffling part of the slide, to Watson, was the lack of a "pattern" to his bad shots. He wasn't slicing everything or hitting only snap hooks; his missed shots were coming in all shapes and lengths. "He got so frustrated that he rushed to get to the next shot," Edwards says. "He's the best player in the world because of his patience—his ability to hit a bad shot and come back and hit a great shot—but he lost that on the West Coast. The harder he tried, the worse it got."
When Watson took a few weeks off in February, he went straight to his longtime teacher, Kansas City Country Club pro Stan Thirsk. "I asked Tom what shots were giving him trouble," Thirsk says, "and he said, 'How about all of them?' " Significantly, Watson didn't mention that his daily three-hour practice sessions were leaving him with a sore neck and shoulders or that a bone spur in the little finger of his right hand pained him. Watson's wife, Linda, had to snitch. "I thought there were things Stan needed to know about Tom's physical problems," she said at Bay Hill. "He's had this neck problem for about a year and a half now, and he's had problems with the bone spur in his finger since 75." Even Linda was for a time unaware of her husband's recent discomfort. "Tom doesn't tell me," she said, laughing. "Bruce tells me."
Watson would never have volunteered the information on his own. Indeed, last week he said, "I haven't had any physical problems." Pain and stiffness weren't excuses, Thirsk told Watson, they were symptoms. "His shoulders and neck were sore, his finger was hurting, so I knew he was fighting it," Thirsk says. Taking Thirsk's advice, Watson tried relaxing his grip pressure, which relieved much of the tightness in his forearms and ultimately his neck. Relaxing also slowed his swing tempo slightly. After working with Thirsk, Watson flew to Dallas for two days of work with his mentor, Byron Nelson, and returned home confident he had made progress. "I've a much better feel for it now," Watson said at Bay Hill. "I was trying to force it to happen, and when you force it, you get tight. There are peaks and valleys in any sport. Moses Malone, Larry Bird, George Brett—they all have slumps. Everybody survives slumps...except maybe boxers. If they have a bad streak, they get knocked on their cans."
Nicklaus, who has been pronounced washed up once or twice in his own career, says flatly, "There's nothing wrong with Watson. Tom has been the leading player in the game the last few years, and when he doesn't play well, that's news. But everybody goes through it. You just don't read about it."