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On the practice tee Thursday morning Watson said his shots did not have the feel or the look of those of a golfer who had won anything more important than a $5 Nassau. "I really didn't know what to expect," he said. "I was as curious as anybody else."
All of this was what led up to the nine-under 63, which was as low a round as any Watson had ever shot on the tour, in terms of being under par.
He started on the 10th hole that first day, and from the moment he found the fairway and the first green in regulation, about 35 feet from the flag, he got the notion that his swing suddenly felt better—as if just being in real competition again had done something to the muscles. He was off with a par.
Then those familiar old explosions began to occur. He hit a "soft wedge" up to within six feet of the cup for a birdie on his second hole of the new season. At the par-3 12th, he put a four-iron shot about 20 feet away and got his first long putt down. Yes, that was working, too.
"Kind of does your heart good to find out that everything is where you left it," Watson said later.
A couple of four-foot birdie putts slid into the cups at the 14th and 18th holes, and the first thing anybody knew the word was up on the scoreboard that Watson was out in 32. On the front nine, Watson just kept it going. He birdied four of the first five holes (20 feet, six feet, 10 feet, 12 feet) and made the final touch a grand one. At the 216-yard 8th hole (his 17th) he nailed a five-iron to within four feet of the pin. In the air, it looked like a one. With that putt, the 63 was complete and there was no more curiosity about what Watson had in mind for 1978.
With their usual thirst for controversy, the touring pros naturally found something else to discuss in Tucson besides Watson's bank account. It all has to do with the PGA tour taking away lifetime exemptions from players who thought they would never have to qualify again.
What has happened is the following: whether you are Julius Boros or Frank Beard or Dave Marr or some guy from Village Nook, Ore., you are going to have to prove you can still play golf a little in order to appear on the tour. There are now what the PGA calls "performance guidelines." It used to be that a Lionel Hebert could simply show up and enter any tournament he chose because he happened to win the PGA in 1957. Now he is going to have to prove he is capable of earning at least $10,000 in prize money a season. For example, a player named Tom Storey won $10,000 in 1977 and finished 146th on the money list. Shouldn't Lionel Hebert be able to play at least that well to justify his taking up a tournament spot? Lionel is a good example. Last year he entered 20 tournaments and won $828.
The argument of the older players, who are threatening a lawsuit, is that "names" have built the tour, and the public would certainly rather see a Lionel Hebert than a Tom Storey. "I don't believe in lifetime exemptions," Frank Beard said. "I never have. Where else in sports is a guy guaranteed a lifetime exemption? Mickey Mantle's not still playing center field for the Yankees because he has a lifetime exemption. But there has to be a compromise. Why does anybody want to keep Julius Boros out of a tournament if he wants to play?"
The debate was best summed up by Orville Moody, who understood the new rule in its simplest terms. "If I can't cut it, I'm South," Orville said. Then he thought a moment and added, "But if I was whoever thought it up, I wouldn't want me out here, either."