This will sound crazy, but it's true: His metronomic swing, always a joy to behold, has never looked this good. It goes up, it goes down, it goes through. Boom-boom-boom. A study in efficiency. (You cannot say the same of his close-range putting stroke. It is short and stubby and nothing like his circa-1977 action, which makes his runner-up finish last week even more extraordinary.)
As a man, Watson has never been more appealing, which is not to suggest there's something easy and endearing about him, because there's not and never has been. He's wound tight and he can be painfully brusque. He once asked Davis Love III for a putting lesson, and Love gave him his best stuff, to which Watson responded, "That's wrong." Watson will, at times, show no patience for reporters with questions or kids with programs to sign or tournament officials who can't give him rain-delay information quickly enough. After his first marriage ended in divorce in 1998, there was a long period when his relationships with his daughter and son were strained. Over the years, there have been dinners where he drank too much, angering his friends and family and worrying them too.
If real life were a VH1 special, we could cite a date when Watson's life changed and the road to last week began. But life of course is messy, and all we can offer are some recent milestones. He married Hilary Watson, former wife of golfer Denis Watson, in September 1999. He won the Senior British Open at Turnberry on July 27, 2003, spending a happy and wistful week with his wife and their great friends Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, while keeping tabs on his longtime caddie, Bruce Edwards, who was battling ALS at home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Edwards, 49, died on April 8, 2004. (Watson has been raising money for ALS research ever since.) He stopped drinking several years ago on a date known to him and not many others. His relationship with both kids, Meg especially, has improved steadily over the past half-dozen years. He got a new hip last Oct. 2. He missed the cut at the Masters on April 10 by a dozen shots. (He says, not happily, that he's a "ceremonial" golfer on the lengthened Augusta National course.)
Then came last week, when he led the 138th British Open after the second and third rounds and seized the outright lead one last time at the 17th on Sunday. He smoked his tee shot on the par-4 18th and clipped a downwind eight-iron from 187 yards that landed short of the hole, took a big bounce and went over the green. Three shots from there and the playoff was on. Watson was spent. His opponent was not.
Watson traipsed up and down Turnberry's dunes without a limp. As he managed his way around the course, a stunning links designed by God and some lesser-known architects, he was the picture of contentment, even as the wind whipped about. Watson, as well as anybody, could move his ball through it. In interviews, he kept talking in different ways about his serenity, and you could see his comfort all week long. He played a practice round with Charles Howell and Brandt Snedeker and told them old Tour stories, the likes of which they had never heard. Last Saturday night, Watson passed his close friend Andy North, the longtime ESPN golf commentator and, at 6'4", the tallest winner of the U.S. Open, punched him on the hip, looked up and gave him a grin that seemed to say, Can you believe this?
After the playoff was over, and while waiting for the prize ceremony to begin, Watson stood beside his golf bag and stared at his clubs, lost in thought, his wife's arm firmly around his waist, both of them so still and focused and centered you knew they knew: You lose more than you win. The fight was over, and Watson was accepting the outcome, even as he thought about what could have been.
In real life Watson is more fun than he sounds here. He has a nice sense of humor. Asked how his old friend Sandy Tatum, the 89-year-old former USGA president, was handling his run at the title, Watson said, "It's giving him a heart attack!" He has lived in the Kansas City area all his life, and spurred on by his friend George Brett, he used to own a small piece of the Royals. He goes with friends to baseball games often. He hunts regularly, sometimes with Michael. He designs courses. He devours the news and argues politics, often taking Rush Limbaugh's side of things when debating his caddie, Neil Oxman, a well-known Democratic political strategist.
But, like Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus before him, Watson has become a sentimentalist. Oxman is on the bag because he was a friend of Edwards's; it was Oxman who first encouraged Edwards to ask Watson for work, way back in 1973. As Watson stood on the 18th fairway on Saturday, he said to Oxman, "Bruce is with us today." After his opening round on Thursday, in which he shot 65—the same score he put up in his last two rounds in the '77 Open—he said he was inspired by a text message he had received from Barbara Nicklaus. She wished him good luck, and it opened a floodgate of Turnberry memories: his triumph over Jack in the Duel in the Sun; his 11th-place finish in the '94 Open, won by Nick Price, after which Tom and his first wife, Linda, and Jack and Barbara commiserated over dinner and a couple of bottles of wine; his Senior British win in 2003, with Oxman caddying and nightly dinners with Hilary and the Nicklauses.
That victory, he said at the time, meant as much as any of his others, because he was winning for "somebody other than myself"—Edwards, his wife, his kids. On those VH1 specials, everybody seems to talk like that. For Watson, it's about as easy as pulling his own tooth, but at least you know he means it.
On Sunday night he spoke affectionately of the Scottish galleries, who have been cheering him on for 34 years now, since he won his first Open at Carnoustie, on the country's east coast, in 1975. They stood for him as he came up the 18th the first time on Sunday, when victory was in reach, and they stood for him the second time, when the promise of victory was extinguished. "That warmth makes you feel human," Watson said. Outside, it was cool and windy, but the green hillsides and white chimneys of the Turnberry Hotel were bathed in yellow by the late evening sun. "It makes you feel so good."