So this time they put you on the revered hills of Augusta, fly the weather in from heaven and hire William Shakespeare to do the script, which calls for you to play golf directly behind The Man, Jack Nicklaus, where you have to watch him make seven birdies and stoop over so often removing the ball from the cup you get to thinking he's three feet tall. You're Tom Watson, and your reputation is that of a young guy who goes out for the last 18 holes of a tournament in a deep-sea diving helmet with a hara-kiri sword strapped to your waist. The wonderful old Masters. It always comes up with something different.
But what was most different last Sunday was Tom Watson himself. He was just about the guttiest golfer anyone had ever seen. He was under the most excruciating pressure from the first tee shot to the next-to-last putt. On every hole and standing over every single shot he was the Tom Watson who was supposed to think up a hook, a slice, a shank, anything outrageous, to take himself out of things. But for four long, thrilling hours all he did was fire a round of golf so unexpectedly brilliant that he not only won the Masters for the second major championship of his career, he also scored a clean knockout over Jack Nicklaus.
Look at it this way. For 16 holes Watson had to take a barrage of Nicklaus' body punches, any one of which, in the past, has been known to floor a lesser fellow. When Jack gets hot and begins a scorching round, everybody else falls down. Now the Masters not only had Nicklaus slugging away, but also Watson right there forced to watch it from a ringside seat. Tom Watson, mind you. The guy who had frittered away so many opportunities in other tournaments. Although he had won the British Open in 1975 and although he had taken the Crosby and San Diego this year, he had recently fallen into his old, errant ways.
There was the evidence of what had happened to him at Sawgrass in the Tournament Players Championship. With a two-stroke lead going into the final nine, he had come apart with a string of bogeys, hit his last tee shot into the water and left Jacksonville humiliated. A week later, in the Heritage Classic at Harbour Town, he played his way into a four-stroke lead with 18 to go—and then had come unpasted again. Thus, he arrived in Augusta as the man who had made winners out of Mark Hayes and Graham Marsh. In the conversations at the Masters, and especially after he had taken the lead in the second round, all anyone talked about with Watson was why he couldn't swallow.
April 18, 1977
So this was the man who on the last day of the Masters had to follow Jack Nicklaus around while thousands of golf-wise people expected that he would ask to be excused after about the 15th hole and run off into the woods and hide.
This, however, was what we must now assume to be the new Tom Watson. This was the Watson who was tied with Rod Funseth for the Masters lead after 36 holes, who was in that glamorous knot with Ben Crenshaw after three rounds, who had to withstand a birdie-for-birdie fight with surprising Rik Massengale over the first nine holes on Sunday, and who at the same time stepped up to take everything Nicklaus could throw at him in the form of golf shots and reputation. He endured all this to shoot a finishing 67 for a total of 276 and a two-stroke victory over Nicklaus.
Watson's most stunning moment was his 15-foot birdie putt that sneaked into the cup at the 17th green, bringing forth a great roar from the gallery that must have swept like a hurricane over Nicklaus, just ahead on the 18th fairway. That was the crucial moment when he went ahead of Nicklaus, to stay. That was the scrapbook moment, Watson slugging at the air with his fist and spinning around as the putt disappeared.
But there were innumerable other moments. There were the birdies he tore out of the front nine at the 5th (12 feet), the 6th (12 feet), the 7th (four feet) and the 8th (15 feet), these coming at a time when Nicklaus was searing the first nine in three under par, and when Massengale was going four under.
Interestingly, Watson had begun the round, as his wife Linda put it, "unreligiously." Hooked the drive at the first, missed the green and had to chip up and make a tough three-footer for a par. Bunkered at the second, no birdie. Meanwhile, Nicklaus was making consecutive birdies to set the tone of the day.
Only at the beginning, and again briefly at the 10th hole where Watson saw a very short putt spin out for a bogey, did he look like the Watson of the recent past. One has to credit the mind. On Tuesday of Masters week he had gone to another golf course to work with Byron Nelson, who is among his golfing shrinks. They had concentrated not only on his swing, but also on his tempo, his style. Slowing down was the object. Watson worked on taking more time walking, setting up, lining up putts, everything.
He came away saying, "I've got a swing now that I think can hold up under pressure." What about the reputation? "I expect the questions about choking. If you lead a tournament and don't win, people say you choke. Either I haven't won the right tournaments so far, or I've lost the wrong ones."
Choking had not been a topic around the Watson household. Linda sat under an umbrella on the Augusta National veranda one afternoon and said, "Look, Tommy's won two tournaments this year. He's finished in the top 10 six times. He's the leading money winner. What we talk about is how well he's doing."
The Watsons have more than that to discuss now. They can talk about the fact that Watson thought Nicklaus was taunting him with a gesture before Watson hit his approach shot on 13. Later, Nicklaus explained that he hadn't been waving at Tom, but had been merely acknowledging the applause of the gallery. They can talk about how Tom then hit a two-iron to the green for the birdie he needed to keep pace with Nicklaus. They can talk about the two-iron Watson smacked over the water at the 15th and a chip shot there that had to be close for a birdie—again to keep pace with Nicklaus. And they can, of course, talk about the downhill birdie putt that curled four inches to the left on the 17th, the one that sent Watson into the sky and Nicklaus, up ahead on 18, into the sand.
There were principally two losers of last week's Masters. Not just Nicklaus, but Crenshaw as well. Overlooked in the drama of the Watson-Nicklaus slugging match was the uncharacteristic collapse of Gentle Ben. Crenshaw had played beautifully for three rounds and, if anything, it was Crenshaw the crowd would have bet on to provide the kind of suspense that Watson produced. But with his round barely begun, Ben was out of it. Seven under par at the beginning, he bogeyed the second and third holes and played thereafter as if he were trying only to get out of Nicklaus' way. He shot a horrible 76 on a perfect day for scoring.
Crenshaw said, "I can't explain it. I think what happened is I'd been hitting a controlled hook off the tee during the week, and a couple of my early drives went to the right, and then I started worrying. I'll learn how to play some day."
One thing about Nicklaus. There rarely has been a better winner and probably never has been a more gracious loser. Jack lives for major titles, and here he had shot a 66, despite a closing bogey, and lost another, but he said, "You may remember that in 1975 when I had that battle with Weiskopf and Johnny Miller, I said it was fun. Well, today I lost the battle, but this was fun, too."
Almost as much fun as Watson had. And the most fun for Tom was walking down the 18th fairway and looking up at the green and seeing Nicklaus. "I asked somebody in the gallery what Jack was putting for," Watson said. "They told me a bogey, that he'd been in the bunker."
For those who then saw Watson's smile and his lips move and may have wondered what he said to himself, the exact words were, "Let's go!"
That was it. Let's go—from the guy who usually went the other way.
To the untrained eye the golf course must have looked like it was made of AstroTurf last week. It was so lush, so green. And the dogwoods and azaleas were blooming this time, as if dozens of florists had gone mad. For the competitor, however, it was something else. The greens were slow, as they have been in recent years. More important, they were inconsistent in how they putted. There were naturally those spots where the ball would scoot away into the yonder, but there were also downhill and sidehill putts which would stop short of the cup, and this is not the way Masters greens were intended to be. The result was that none of the golfers could feel confident throughout a whole round, not to mention a whole tournament. Disbelief was the expression on a player's face when a putt would curl this way or that, or speed up, or stop shy of where he had expected it to go. So much for the bad winter and the presence of Poa annua on the putting surfaces. Mostly what this does is add elements of luck to a tournament.
The first day passed with the crowds waiting for something to happen. For a while everyone looked to be two under par, but no one could get any lower. It wound up being Hubert Green's day when he birdied four of the last six holes for a five-under 67, which was one of only three sub-70 rounds. Thursday night Watson stood at two-under, Crenshaw at one-under and Nicklaus at even par. Green's score could have been lower, for he missed a very makable eagle putt at the 15th and a decent birdie try at the 17th hole. "I've geared myself to win a major," he said, and this is what Hubert needs to make himself better known. He has won as many tournaments as Weiskopf, for example, and more than Hale Irwin, for another example, but no one puts him in that category.
Just when it appeared this might be Green's year in Augusta, he met the kind of fate so many players have at the evil 12th hole. He was four under par when he reached there on Friday and still in control. Then he hit a seven-iron over the flag and into a buried lie in a back bunker. Siberia is better than being in a back bunker on Augusta's 12th. Or Cleveland. He exploded out too strongly. The ball raced across the green and into Rae's Creek. He dropped another ball into the bunker and barely got it out, lying four. The fact that he made this 20-foot putt for a double bogey—and was joyous about it—was all to Hubert's credit and a fine display of his competitive nature, but he had made a five on a par-3 hole, and that took him out of the tournament. Watson and Crenshaw were shooting 69s, and Nicklaus 70 to Green's 74.
If there was a locker room favorite other than Nicklaus it was Weiskopf, who had scalded the course in practice. Nonetheless, he began this Masters shakily, struggling for pars on the first few holes. One of them was more shaky than the others. On the 4th hole on Thursday Weiskopf hit a soaring hook that was definitely going to put him in bogey territory, or worse, but it struck a spectator on the head and bounded on the green for a routine three. Thereafter, Weiskopf didn't hit enough heads. He shot 73.
It was on Saturday that Weiskopf began to look and play like the man who had finished second four times in the Masters. Through the 13th hole he was four under par, working on a 68 or something better. He had even briefly tied for the lead when Saturday's leader boards proclaimed a six-way tie for a matter of moments. But then Weiskopf found himself on the dangerous front edge of the 14th green with a 75-foot putt, up the steep part, for a birdie. After his first putt he had a 60-footer for a par. The ball had rolled up and back down the hill so that it now rested on the other side of him. He took roughly five lateral steps to try the next putt. This time he got the ball up on the second level of the green but he was still 12 feet from the cup, putting for a bogey. He missed by three feet. A three-footer is no gimme at Augusta, but Weiskopf made it for his double bogey. Like Green, one hole had taken him out of contention. He never recovered.
In a way it was a terrible epilogue to what had been one of the grandest sights of a spectacular Saturday—Weiskopf on the 13th hole. He had gone for the green in two and found the ravine in front of the green. He had taken off his shoes and socks, put the shoes back on, waded into the water and slashed a wedge shot out of there. He had somehow gouged the ball up onto the green, and he had done it after playing himself into a tie for the lead. The crowds went crazy. And they went still crazier when Weiskopf emptied a gallon of water out of his shoe. He missed the birdie putt, which would have given him sole possession of the lead, but he had bravely saved his par, and he had provided a marvelous dramatic moment—just about the only thing that could draw attention from the afternoon's glamour pairing of rose-colored Watson and candy-striped Crenshaw. "The future of golf pairing," as it was called around the press quarters.
As strange a sight as any came at the day's end. There on the Augusta veranda were those two young women sitting together, giggling, chatting. Polly Crenshaw and Linda Watson. Their husbands were down the hill being interviewed by 4,000 people. Their husbands were tied for the lead at 209. One had to think of other days, of a time when a Ben Hogan and a Byron Nelson might have been in the same situation. Valerie and Louise would have been knitting or sitting in the car. Polly and Linda were laughing and talking, as were their husbands, of how much fun it all was. Crenshaw had shot another 69, and Watson had birdied the last hole for a 70. They had played superbly and could have shot even better. But it was their tournament on Saturday evening, and it was their wives' tournament, too. Now Watson and Crenshaw came up to the veranda.
Tom said Sunday was going to be "a heck of a lot of fun." Ben said Sunday was going to be "a gut buster." They both said they were hungry. Polly said she hoped one of the two would win, and Linda said the same thing. And off they went. Two pretty young girls looking like they ought to be at a college football game, and two handsome, bare-headed young guys in flashy colors looking like the leading men Carole Lombard could never decide between. Just your basic future of golf.
If you can say you knew one of these two dashing characters would win the Masters, you couldn't possibly have known how. That Jack Nicklaus, of all people, would lose to Tom Watson. Of all people.