After all of the excitement and insanity of a highly unusual Masters that looked both old and new at the same time, Tom Watson brought it to a calm conclusion last Sunday on the Augusta National course by taking us on a tour of his golf bag over the late and crucial holes, those holes that make the best calendar art and are slowly etching Watson into the history of the Old South alongside generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Nicklaus. When it came down to winning his second Masters and his fifth major championship, Watson hit a variety of shots as beautifully as any human can hit them. This was the only way he could stave off the challenges of Jack Nicklaus, his co-star in the drama, and Johnny Miller, the best supporting player. Nobody gave Watson this Masters, as bizarre as some of its moments were. In the final hour he held on to a threadbare lead by playing brilliantly over water, out of sand and across a new set of greens that were slicker than the top of Sam Snead's head.
The manic action of Saturday's third round had revived the Watson-Nicklaus Show that had previously played to smash-hit notices in Augusta, Ga. and Turnberry, Scotland and had left Watson with a one-stroke lead over Nicklaus with 18 holes to go. It was this lead Watson had to protect on Sunday, particularly over the last nine, where danger so often lurks and where the tournament is so often claimed or given away.
Over those final holes, with Nicklaus forever present and threatening and with Miller already "in the house" with a closing 68 and a six-under-par total of 282, here, in essence, is what Tom Watson did to win:
He rammed home an assassin of an eight-footer for a par 3 at the tortuous 12th hole; he saved his par 5 at the 13th with the niftiest pitch shot anybody ever hit over a creek and under the circumstances; he birdied the par-5 15th with two putts after nailing as solid a four-wood into a breeze and over blue water as he has ever struck, the ball landing like a butterfly and settling into the fat part of the green; and he saved his par 4 at the 17th with a glorious bunker shot on the same hole and from the same sand that had done him in the day before.
Happiness is knowing you can bogey the last hole and still win the Masters, but Watson was too much in control of his game to bogey the 18th at Augusta. He parred it by driving safely into the left center of the fairway, hitting an equally safe five-iron to the green and comfortably two-putting from 30 feet. When he raised his arms in victory, he had shot a one-under 71 for the day, and his eight-under total of 280 gave him a two-stroke edge over Nicklaus and Miller.
"I was so nervous today, I was about to jump out of my skin," Watson said afterward. "But when nobody made a real strong run at me early, it helped me settle down and just try to play good golf shots."
Many of Watson's fans might have been happier if he had been nervous enough to jump out of his Fila golf shirt, a model he has worn lately because of a lucrative contract. It's a shirt favored by people who fancy a skimpy, flat collar, and during the week Watson took some brutal kidding about it. "If you can win the Masters in those shirts," he was told, "it will be the greatest accomplishment since Jack won 19 majors."
One of the fascinating aspects of the tournament is that Saturday got mixed up with Sunday. It was on Saturday that Nicklaus lost a four-shot lead on the field and Watson's name went to the top. All of this occurred in the most unlikely of ways, and all of it was done by Watson and Nicklaus themselves.
What happened is that Watson picked up eight strokes on Nicklaus over a stretch of only eight holes, and then Nicklaus picked up four strokes on Watson over a stretch of only two holes. It seemed as if they had separately gone all the way to Albania and back and would somehow wind up in the same place, which was tied for the lead through 54 holes. But Nicklaus completed his round by missing a short putt on the last green. That was the place where Jack really started losing and Tom started winning the tournament.
The key hole in the drama of the eight-shot swing on Saturday was the 12th, where Nicklaus, holding only half of the four-shot lead he had forged on Friday, suddenly and quite shockingly hit a six-iron into Rae's Creek and took a double bogey. Rattled, and aware by the noise of the crowd that Watson was probably doing great things ahead of him, Nicklaus hit Rae's Creek again just up the line at 13 for a bogey. Meanwhile, Watson indeed was birdieing 13, 14 and 15 to go four up on Nicklaus. The next key hole of the afternoon was the 17th, where Watson landed in the front bunker and then three-putted for a different type of double bogey, but one as sudden and shocking as Nicklaus'. The result of that, combined with Nicklaus' birdies on 15 and 16, was a four-shot swing.