In a spring memorable for its heartwarming comeback stories, no one would like to join the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Bill Shoemaker more than Tom Watson. And what more appropriate setting could there have been for Watson's return than last week's Byron Nelson Golf Classic, at Las Colinas just outside Dallas, under the thoughtful gaze of the event's namesake, who just happens to be Tom's golfing master. Alas, it was not to be. Watson and his fragmented putting stroke left little pieces of themselves on the greens of Las Colinas.
Watson hasn't won a tournament since the summer of 1984, and at the Byron Nelson he not only did not excel but also missed the cut at an event he has won four times. While Andy Bean was en route to victory, Watson went home early after a four-over-par 74-70 that included 63 mostly undistinguished putts.
The $108,000 first prize vaulted Bean to No. 1 on the year's money list; he has earned $380,304 all told. "I think we middle guys and the old guys are still pretty good," said Bean, rejecting the idea that the tour will soon be run by yuppies. "In the long run, nothing is going to beat experience."
That's exactly what Watson is counting on. In his 15 years as a professional, Watson has ridden his imagination and genius for holing out to eight major championships and 31 PGA Tour victories. But these days "doing a Watson"—Jerry Pate's term for the nerveless audacity of such Watson strokes as the slam-dunked-comeback-eight-footer and the off-the-green, flagstick-rattling opponent-destroyer—has become a feat recounted more in the nostalgia columns than in the Monday sports pages. "It's a matter of being ill at ease with the putter," says Watson. "It doesn't feel good and it doesn't look good to me."
Watson says his putting has been in gradual decline since his wondrous U.S. Open win at Pebble Beach in 1982. Four years later, his skill with the weapon that made him the game's top player in the late '70s and early '80s has faded to the ordinary. Meanwhile, he is beginning to show the symptoms of a man with little patience and even less confidence. He has switched from the Ping Pal putter he has used for more than a decade to a T-line putter. He is indecisive about line. His putting rhythm, fast before his current slump, now often seems jerky. His longtime caddie, Bruce Edwards, says a counterproductive cynicism lingers in Watson's attitude.
" 'This game is not fun.' He repeated that to me many times last year," said Edwards, who has been with Watson since 1973. "He's gotten rid of that attitude, but he's still reluctant to accept a good result when the execution was less than perfect. He has to remember that accepting those shots is a building block to allowing good execution to happen later."
Nelson, Watson's mentor since 1974, believes his prize pupil is swinging better than ever on full shots, and simply needs to make a few putts at the right time. "Tom feels he cannot make a putt when he needs it," says Nelson. "In every round, there is a putt that is key, and he's been missing that one every time. Right now his confidence is kind of zero."
From 1980 to '85, Watson ranked second in average putts per round. But last year he finished out of the top 50 in average putts, his worst showing since the statistic was instituted in 1980. This year, going into the Byron Nelson, he ranked 54th in both putting categories: average putts per round, with 29.4, and average putts on greens hit in regulation, 1.797.
Too often Watson has stroked crucial putts far off line or, worse, left them short. At the Hawaiian Open in February, he hit 67 of 72 greens in regulation, but putted so poorly that he lost his final-round lead and finished tied for third with a dismal 73. During the fourth round of the '86 Masters, Watson had a go-for-broke chance to catch the leaders but made only tentative stabs at makable eagle putts on the 13th and 15th. He finished tied for sixth.
"It used to be," says Watson, "I'd see the line, I'd know how hard to hit it and I'd make it. Now, I question the line; I know how hard to hit it, but then there's a mis-hit. That's two elements that are off."
George Archer, an alltime master putter who has worked with Watson on his stroke, says Tom may be trying to defy the cyclical nature of the game. "He's not really putting that bad," says Archer. "But he's used to winning with big putts. What is it when the 40-footers drop? It's magic. When they stop, that's just the other side of the razor's edge. It's the game. That's why it's so brutal."
Watson admits that he allowed his attitude to get the better of him last year. "I got frustrated and I stopped working hard," he says. "I have no excuse for that." This year, he has practiced diligently and the results are more positive. "I've played decently," he says. In eight of 11 starts before the Byron Nelson, he had been in the top 15, including four top-10 finishes in his previous five starts. Over that same period he was third in scoring, with 70.2. More telling, however, was his final-round average was 71.5.
Still, Dallas seemed a logical place for a breakthrough. But in a tournament in which he had been no worse than fourth in the last eight years, and with a field that lacked several top players, Watson didn't have it.
Some pros betray a secret pleasure that Watson is finally experiencing putting problems. Many others show concern, but keep a respectful distance. George Burns, who literally made 46 yards of birdie putts Saturday on his way to a 63, walked past Watson on the putting green and asked quietly, "Are you putting real bad, Tom?" Said Watson, "Not very good." Burns watched as Watson took a few strokes with yet another new putter and said, "Well, hang in there."
No doubt he will. No one is ready to say that Watson is in the kind of irreversible spiral that brought down Arnold Palmer and other greats when they reached their 40s. At 36, Watson is sure the problem is more mechanical than the erosion of nerve. Peter Jacobsen, who played with Watson at the Nelson, says, "Tom will run the tables again. I just think that because he is a superstar, he expects to. He's used to it happening for him, and it might be hard for him to accept that he has to wait for it like everybody else."
Watson, of course, has had a way of recovering from adversity by scoring major victories, so his slump may not last much longer. He salved two blown U.S. Opens with his first British Open win in 1975. Two years later, after he had lost leads in early-season tournaments, he quieted critics who called him a choker by outdueling Nicklaus at the Masters and the British Open at Turnberry. If Watson could pick one tournament to win this year, it would be the PGA Championship, for the final leg of a career Grand Slam. "I know I've still got a lot more to give," he says.
"I think in the long run, this lull is going to be for the best," said Edwards. "It's always sweeter after adversity. Always sweeter the second time around. Ask Shoemaker. Ask Nicklaus."