The protagonists in the most memorable golf dramas often seem to
be led along by some invisible hand. A dazed and dehydrated Ken
Venturi won the 1964 U.S. Open by listening to a mantra in his
head that directed him to keep going, to put one foot in front
of the other. En route to his epic victory at the 1986 Masters,
Jack Nicklaus saw contenders eerily fall away as if deferring to
the greatest player ever so he could achieve his crowning
validation. When a shaky Johnny Miller won at Pebble Beach in
1994, he mentally transformed himself into his carefree teenage
son before putting. Ben Crenshaw felt Harvey Penick's gentle
touch on his shoulder throughout his 1995 Masters triumph.
But when 46-year-old Tom Watson ended a nine-year victory
drought on Sunday and gave the golf world its biggest thrill of
the year by winning the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, he
did it the hard way. Sure, he holed a few unlikely putts and a
couple of sand shots on Friday and Saturday. But on Sunday, the
day that has induced a Pavlovian freeze in Watson almost every
time he has been in contention during the last five years, the
flinty and determined yet vulnerable hero had to overcome an
assortment of challenges, from an early case of the yips to the
pressure of a tightrope finish.
"The beauty and the agony of the game is that some days it is so
easy and other days it is so tough," Watson said after defeating
David Duval by two strokes over a soggy Muirfield Village Golf
Club course, shooting a closing-round 70 for a 14-under-par
total of 274. "You adjust and you find a way to do it. What I
was always so good at was, even though I couldn't find [my
groove], sometimes I still won tournaments."
And so he did on Sunday. Spectators gave him standing ovations
on every hole of his final round. His victory recalled his glory
years, from 1977 to 1984, when he won 35 tournaments, including
seven of his eight majors. But the Watson of today has neither
the same strengths nor the same weaknesses as the old one. He
used to be an erratic ball striker with a bold and deadly
putting stroke. He is now one of the game's most impressive
players from tee to green--but one who undoes his efforts with a
nervous, often tentative prod with the short stick.
June 9, 1996
"I've learned that if you don't putt well," said Watson, "you
Watson's putting woes began in the mid-1980s. They first drew
close attention during the '87 U.S. Open, at which Watson missed
three-foot putts on the 1st hole of both the third and final
rounds. He lost the event by a stroke to Scott Simpson. Later
that year Watson won the Nabisco Championships, his last PGA
Tour victory until Sunday.
In the nine years since that Nabisco triumph, Watson has
struggled mightily to overcome his yips. His labors on the
greens--the most gut-wrenching kind of stroke-wasting
putting--have at times been brutal to watch, the only
consolation to his fans being the knowledge that Watson would be
sturdy enough to weather the experience.
During his slump Watson became perhaps the most sympathetic
figure in the game. He opened 1994 by three-putting away the
AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am to the equally yipsy Miller.
He was in contention after three rounds at each of that year's
first three majors, only to shoot a final-day 74 on each
occasion to finish no better than tied for sixth. On the final
day of the '94 British Open at Turnberry, he took the lead
briefly on the front nine, then double-bogeyed consecutive
holes and fell away. "That was my most discouraging moment," he
admits. "The putter felt like an anvil."
This year, in March, Watson had a chance to win the Freeport
McDermott Classic in New Orleans. He entered the final round two
strokes behind Scott McCarron, and he was still two back at the
turn. Again, however, he lost his putting touch and made four
quick bogeys. He finished second, five strokes behind McCarron.
At the Masters, Watson missed the cut for the first time in 21
years as a professional--by one shot--when he five-putted the
16th hole on Friday. Coming into the Memorial, Watson had played
in 141 Tour events without a win. On 31 occasions he had started
the final round within five shots of the lead and had come up
What made the Memorial different, however, was that for the
first time since his Nabisco victory, Watson led after 54 holes,
despite facing one of the year's strongest fields. Because it
typically falls two weeks before the U.S. Open--as it does this
year--and because Muirfield is such a highly regarded layout,
the Memorial is a popular Tour stop.
Watson's lead after three rounds was a good omen, as was the
fact that other than Ernie Els, who trailed by one shot, and
John Huston and Paul Stankowski, who were two back, no one was
closer than five strokes. Moreover, the rainy conditions
forecast for the final day were up Watson's alley; the dampness
would slow Muirfield's greens to something approaching a comfort
Nevertheless, on the 1st hole on Sunday, Watson lost his
outright lead doing precisely what he had been doing for the
last nine years: He missed a two-footer. He missed it so badly
that the ball didn't even touch the hole. Watson suddenly had to
regain his composure. Els, the '94 U.S. Open champion, was now
tied with him for the lead.
Watson steadied himself and settled into a shoot-out with three
gunslingers: Els, long overdue after more than 12 months without
a Tour victory; Huston, who shattered Muirfield's course record
with an 11-under-par 61 on Friday; and Mark O'Meara, the hottest
player on the Tour, who had finished first, second (twice) and
third in his four previous starts.
Watson focused on his putting. He recalled an image of
Crenshaw's rhythmic stroke and, locking onto it, holed a
confidence-building four-footer for par on the 3rd hole. "I was
confident," said Bruce Edwards, Watson's caddie for 20 of the
last 23 years. "I knew he had found something in his putting
stroke. I know him so well. I just had a really good feeling
By the time Watson built a three-stroke lead with a 20-foot
birdie putt on the 13th hole, it seemed that only a sudden case
of putting spasms could undo him. Enter Duval, a 24-year-old
Tour sophomore, who on the heels of a third-round 65 was on his
way to a closing 67. Seven under par and seven strokes back
after 13 on Sunday, Duval, playing two groups ahead of Watson,
toured the last five holes in five under par.
Knowing that Duval's eagle on the 15th and birdie on the 16th
had cut his lead to three, Watson stepped to the tee at the
490-yard par-5 15th. The 15th ranked as the easiest hole at
Muirfield for the week, but Watson hardly made it look that way
on Sunday. He pushed his tee shot into the trees and had to
punch back into the fairway. His third shot came to rest some 30
feet from the hole, and from there he three-putted, badly
pulling a five-footer for par.
Watson dug in. On the par-3 16th, he staked a five-iron straight
over the pin to within 20 feet and two-putted for par. He pulled
his drive on the par-4 17th into a fairway bunker but skinned a
precise eight-iron that nearly hit the flagstick before stopping
on the fringe 15 feet behind the hole. Watson looked shaky
sinking his two-footer for par, however, and as he walked to the
last tee, he learned that Duval had birdied 18 to cut his lead
On the final hole, a 437-yard par-4 dogleg right, Watson hit a
bold drive that flirted with the bunker down the right side. He
then nailed a six-iron, leaving the ball 12 feet above the pin.
He was left with a lightning-fast downhill putt.
Here, finally, the guiding hand that Watson has never asked for
during his long drought intervened. On a putt that Watson was
trying to leave short, the ball steamed down the slope and into
the hole, saving him from any chance of missing the
comebacker--a miss that might have broken even his back.
The scene seemed like a flashback to Watson's victory at the
1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. After Watson looked heavenward
and threw his hat as far as he could, he walked to the edge of
the green and embraced the runner-up in that championship, and
the host at Muirfield, Jack Nicklaus.
"God, it feels good; it feels so good to win again," said
Watson. "It was like winning all over again for the first time."
He dedicated the victory to his father, Ray, who suffered a
possible stroke before the tournament and had to be hospitalized
in Kansas City. Everyone at the Memorial wanted to
celebrate--fans, Watson, even other golfers. Crenshaw, Brad
Faxon and other players waited around to congratulate the
winner. Said Duval, "If my first victory is held up because Tom
Watson wins the golf tournament, that's fine."
No one was more delighted than the other members of the golf
pantheon to which Watson belongs. Said his close friend Lee
Trevino, "My prayers have been answered. I love the guy because
he is a totally honest individual. He's got so much character, I
knew he was going to put it together and win one." Said Watson's
longtime mentor, Byron Nelson, "I'm just thrilled. Tom has
become such a good driver of the ball, I knew eventually it was
going to raise his confidence back through his irons and down to
his putter. It's a victory for the power of a positive mind."
Finally, Nicklaus weighed in with a remarkable statement. "I
believe it was the most thrilling win of any I've seen or
accomplished myself in 10 years, from when I won the Masters in
'86 until now," he said. "It means an awful lot for the game of
Through all his difficulties Watson never lost faith in himself.
"I don't lament my missed opportunities," he said after the
third round. "I have always had the ability to come back from a
bad hole with a good hole and from a bad tournament with a good
tournament. It's not conscious. It's basically unconscious, but
I trust it."
Watson will go to the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills next week with
a renewed enthusiasm. "I can't wait," he said. "I have put four
rounds together, finally, and now I can't wait for the most
difficult, most important championship in the world."
When Watson looks back on his career, however, it's doubtful he
will find anything more memorable than what he did at the