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.
January 16, 1978
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 2½ 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.
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."
That is how it was in the locker room, where the debates will rage on throughout most of the winter. Outside, around a wide, deep creek bed called the Canada del Oro, where the Tucson National course leaps and roams, it was a Tom Watson story from beginning to end.
Or as the most shameless and unbashful of radio announcers broadcast one morning, his voice reverberating through the press room: "Leader Tom Watson teed off this morning before large legions of links-laughing loyalists. And that's pro golf as I see it. H. G. Listiak for KOY Sports."
That's how everyone saw it, H.G.