It might as well have been Tombstone, which is just a six-gun and a one-iron down the road. All of the bad guys could have been waiting there for Tom Watson to step off the next stagecoach. Billy Clanton and his brother Ike. The McLaurys, Frank and Tom. Indian Charlie and John Ringo. Maybe Three-Fingered Jack Dunlap. But Watson outdrew them all, fired a 63 into the O.K. Corral, shrugged off a couple of flesh wounds and finally planted an upstart kid named Bobby Wadkins on a rocky slope of Boot Hill. It was golf, of course. But, boy. Talk about your reruns.
Perhaps because the pros had enjoyed such a long layoff, the first tournament of 1978, the Joe Garagiola-Tucson Open, attracted one of its better fields. There were Lee Trevinos and Johnny Millers and Bruce Lietzkes all around the desert, but Watson was more prominent than anyone, being the guy who shot down Jack Nicklaus in the streets of Augusta and Turnberry.
That Watson would start right out as if 1977 never ended must give his contemporaries something to think about. It was as if young Tom from Missouri was out there in Arizona specifically to drop the hint that nothing in the past 12 months was any kind of a fluke. What Watson did was lead from start to finish. His 63 on Thursday flattened so many egos that Trevino said, "The tournament's over, I can't catch him."
It wasn't exactly over. Even after Watson added a 68 on Friday, his lead was only four strokes. In golf, that's not much. Still, if you looked at who was chasing Watson—mainly Wadkins—you had to know that by then it was purely a case of Watson avoiding any calamities. On Saturday he shot an undistinguished one-over-par 73, and still held the lead by two. It did get touchy on Sunday when Wadkins, who first came to the attention of America last May by shooting a 29 on the back nine of Nicklaus' Muirfield Village course, birdied the first two holes to tie for the lead.
Watson regained the lead with a birdie at the 6th hole, and they both played along steadily after that until Watson bogeyed the 16th, putting Wadkins back into a tie. But ultimately it came down to experience at the last hole, a tough and scenic par-4 with enough water on each side of the fairway to drown the Apache nation. While both golfers drove beautifully, it was Wadkins who would hit the fat iron shot, chip poorly and then miss a 10-footer for a par.
When it was Watson's turn to fire at the green, he struck the kind of four-iron he hit at Nicklaus all last year. Fifteen feet from the cup, case dismissed, a $40,000 start, Happy New Year. It was, however, the 63 which shook up the tournament, the city and the sport.
Watson did not know what to expect of himself or his golf clubs when he got to Tucson. He had been away from competition for 2� months. He had played only 10 rounds and none of them seriously. He had not practiced at all. He had mainly gone hunting a lot and learned to fly. Tom did not learn to fly because he was looking forward to owning his private Lear one of these years. He did it strictly as a hobby. "In Kansas City several of our friends fly, just for fun," he said. "I merely wanted to be able to go out with them on weekends and fly...if there's no football game on."
Last year had worn him out emotionally. Why not? He had outbattled Nickiaus twice in major championships, winning the Masters and the British Open. He had won four other events and about $350,000, counting foreign prize money. He had become the Player of the Year by midsummer with no one else even remotely in contention.
The little golf that Watson did play during the winter had nothing to do with improving his game. Once, when the weather was terrible at home, he and Linda packed up and went to Delray Beach, Fla. for five days as the guests of Bob and Gail Murphy. Tom and Bob played some fun rounds. Later on, Watson spent a couple of days with one of his golfing shrinks, Byron Nelson, in Dallas. They discussed some mental aspects of the game. And that, so far as golf is concerned, was it.
Watson arrived in Tucson in time to play a practice round on Monday but he wanted to watch the bowl games. So his serious preparation for the new year did not begin until Tuesday. In short, he was going to start out defending his fast-draw reputation with only two practice rounds behind him.