Starting Over In his Senior tour debut, Tom Watson brought the galleries to life but not, alas, his putter

September 19, 1999

Tom Watson recently relived a golf moment frozen in time--and,
now, captured in frosting. To celebrate Watson's 50th birthday,
the organizers of a fund-raising skins game in Kansas City, Mo.,
presented him with a cake decorated to depict his famous chip-in
at the 17th hole at Pebble Beach that won the 1982 U.S. Open.
The rough, in which Watson's ball was nestled, was made of green
icing, while the green was made of chocolate. A small candy man
represented Watson. The cake was a cute idea, but it reminded
Watson of a word Jack Nicklaus had used in warning him about the
Senior tour. "It's no cakewalk out there, Tom," Nicklaus said.
"These guys can flat-out play."

Nicklaus, Watson learned during his Senior tour debut last week
at the Comfort Classic at Brickyard Crossing in Indianapolis,
was right. Watson finished 22nd, nine shots behind winner Gil
Morgan, giving no indication that he's ready to take over for
Hale Irwin, who since turning 50 in 1995 has won 25 tournaments,
including five this year.

What Watson did do, though, was grab everyone's attention, which
was what this tired tour was hoping for. The Indianapolis fans,
perhaps inspired by billboards around town touting Watson as
INDY'S NEWEST DRIVER, flocked to his gallery, particularly after
he opened with a six-under-par 66. He also received a warm
welcome from his fellow Seniors, who sense that Watson could be
their point man for the new millennium. "We've got the dominant
player of the 1980s, which is extremely good for us," said tour
veteran Dave Stockton. "We went through a slump, or whatever you
call it, where not many guys came out. Now with Tom, Tom Kite
[he turns 50 on Dec. 9] and Lanny Wadkins [Dec. 5], they're
coming out in bunches."

The Senior tour certainly can use a shot in the arm. The stars
around whom the circuit once revolved--Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer,
Gary Player and Lee Trevino--are just a sideshow now. Lesser but
more competitive names command most of the airtime, which is one
reason ratings are in steep decline. The Comfort Classic was
telecast by ESPN and, on Sunday, by ABC. Both networks rode
Watson hard. "I'm sure the tour wants to raise its rights fees,"
says Jack Graham, the producer of ABC golf, "but ESPN is
probably saying, 'Look, the ratings are down 18 percent.' I
don't think Tom Watson or anybody else is going to make the
impact on ratings that Tiger Woods does on the PGA Tour, but if
Watson can stop that slide, that helps everybody."

To make a difference, Watson needs to win, although it would be
unfair to say his debut was a failure because he didn't this
time out. Irwin's first victory came in his fifth start, and he
won only twice in his first full year. He went on a tear after
that when, not coincidentally, he led the tour in putting. While
Watson putts much better than he did in the mid-'90s, when he
fought the yips, he still struggles on the green. He ranked a
respectable 25th in putting at the Brickyard, but if he is to
challenge Irwin, he'll have to do considerably better than that.
Putting was one reason Nicklaus stayed competitive for so long.
If he ever had a putting slump, no one remembers it.

Says Watson, "Jack once told me, 'When you get older, you're
going to hit the ball better than you ever have. It's all the
other things you've got to keep going.' He was right. This game
is all about robbing Peter to pay Paul. The '90s were difficult
because putting had been my strength. I started losing my touch
in '82, '83 and '84. I don't know what happened. I look at it
somewhat philosophically because I broke more hearts on the
green than I probably deserved to, and it's averaging out."

In his first round as a Senior, Watson needed only 26 putts. On
the weekend he looked less confident, like a man trying to
manufacture a stroke. He shot a 69 on Saturday and on Sunday was
still within sight of Morgan until three-putting from the fringe
for bogey at the 9th and then missing a five-footer for par at
the 10th. His finish was particularly ugly. He pushed his
approach at the par-4 18th into a stream, took a drop, pitched
on and then three-jacked from 10 feet, missing a three-footer.
Give him a par there instead of a triple bogey for a 75, and he
would've finished 11th.

Obviously, Watson is rusty. Since May he has played only the
three majors--eight competitive rounds all told. Two weeks ago
he married Hilary Watson, the former wife of Tour pro Denis
Watson, and as a result didn't practice going into Indy. "With
everything that's going on in his life, he probably came out
here too soon," said Bruce Edwards, Watson's longtime caddie.
"On the other hand, sitting at home isn't going to accomplish
anything. Things have been so chaotic for him the last few
years. Now that he's happier, it should pay dividends."

Not only does Watson have a new tour and a new wife, but he is
also beginning a new life. The Watsons live on a ranch 26 miles
south of Kansas City and plan to spend the winter in Fort
Lauderdale so Hilary can be near her three children, ages 8, 10
and 13, who attend school there. Tom's daughter, Meg, is a
sophomore at Duke. His son, Michael, is a high school junior in
Kansas City. Watson intends to work on his game over the winter
and enter about 20 Senior events next year, including most of
the early ones in Florida, plus the Masters, the British Open,
the Colonial and, if he gets exemptions, the U.S. Open and the
PGA. "He still has that fire," Hilary says. "He's incredibly
competitive. I can tell on the tennis court--I can beat him in
tennis. I hate to admit it, but he beats me in pool."

Watson prefers not to talk about his life-changing events,
including his divorce a year ago from Linda, his wife of 25
years, and how it affected his play and motivation. "Suffice it
to say that I'm happy now," he says. "If you're happy, you play
well."

The players Watson used to beat on the regular Tour expect him,
putting woes and all, to succeed as a Senior. "If this tour is a
blood bank, he's going to be Count Dracula having a gory feast,"
says Gary McCord, the part-time golfer and full-time TV
announcer who was bounced from Masters telecasts at Watson's
behest, then found himself paired with him for two rounds last
week. Says Morgan, who had been keeping pace with Irwin until
this year, "Maybe Tom and I can be a tag team. Hale is a tough
cookie."

Whatever Watson's impact turns out to be, it won't be felt until
next year, because this week's Bank One Championship, in Dallas,
is the only other Senior event he plans to enter in '99. In the
meantime the Senior tour is just happy to have another strong
player with a famous name. If Watson can regain his luster, that
would be icing on the cake.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM GUND Grudge match? Watson and McCord (far left) probably didn't compare notes on the Masters.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)