He's Back!

Senior PGA Winner Denis Watson Picks Up Where He Left Off 23 Years Ago
June 03, 2007

Rory Sabbatini HasAn Update for Tiger
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Taking Exception to LPGA Exemptions
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The PGA Tour Needs Drug Testing Now
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At the Senior PGA,Denis Watson proved that he's too tough to keep down forever. The Ocean courseproved that it's simply too tough, period

When the 1991 RyderCup was held on the then new Ocean course on Kiawah Island, S.C., the hotlycontested event was billed as the War by the Shore. Last week, when big-timegolf finally returned to Kiawah, they could have called the Senior PGAChampionship the Gore by the Shore, because the wind-whipped Ocean courseabsolutely destroyed the over-50 set. "In 44 years of playing this game,all the U.S. Opens and British Opens, I've never played a course thishard," said Tim Simpson, who finished fifth, seven shots behind winnerDenis Watson. ¶ Kiawah took no prisoners in that '91 Ryder Cup. Remember thecarnage at the dreaded 17th hole, a 197-yard par-3 with a waste area on theleft and a huge, frequently visited water hazard in front and on the right?Mark Calcavecchia, among others, certainly does. There was more of the samelast week. The 17th yielded one perfect 10--sorry, David Ishii--and 67 doublebogeys or worse. Only 22 birdies were made on the hole, which was playing sotough that on Saturday, PGA officials took mercy on the players and moved upthe tee, making 17 a more senior-friendly 158 yards.

Because the PeteDye--designed Ocean course is almost always raked by gusty winds off theAtlantic and has raised greens, acres of waste areas and bunkers so deep thatthey ought to come with ladders, some players wondered if the course, which wasa terrific stage for match play, is suitable for a stroke-play event. (The 2012PGA Championship is scheduled for Kiawah.) Says one former major champion whowishes to remain anonymous, "It's a combination of a TPC and a linkscourse, with the worst qualities of both. It wasn't designed for wind."

The Ocean coursesure is pretty, though, and the Senior PGA was four days of beautifuldisasters. The first two rounds should've come with a disclaimer: WARNING! MAYBE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR EGO. The average score was 77.265 in round 1. How windywas it? On the two par-5 holes used to measure players' drives, the average teeshot on the 7th, playing downwind, traveled 295 yards. On the 16th, playinginto the wind, the average was 225.

On Sunday thetournament turned on the 14th hole, a 194-yard par-3 with a Redan green nearlysurrounded by sand. The leader, Eduardo Romero of Argentina, a low-ball hitterwho grew up playing in wind, pulled his tee shot into the back of a deepbunker. His ball buried in the steep downslope, which shouldn't happen. IndianaJones could not have extricated the ball, so Romero did what an alarming numberof players had been forced to do last week after hitting into sandy sideslopes: take a one-stroke penalty for an unplayable lie. Romero's drop pluggedin a sandy lie outside the bunker, then he splashed a shot onto the green--nosmall feat--and two-putted for the double bogey he knew he'd make the momenthis tee shot drifted left. "Very sad, very sad," he said, "but it'sO.K. Golf is like this." (Not at most places, El Gato.)

Watson, in thefinal group with Romero and Nick Price, pured a four-iron to eight feet andmade the birdie putt to execute the golf equivalent of the Mongolian Reversal.The three-shot swing vaulted him from a shot back to two ahead, and he held thelead to the end, playing another superb tee shot to the 17th green andofficially becoming the winner when Romero's birdie try missed at 18.

Watson finished atnine-under-par 279, and the 51-year-old Zimbabwean's remarkable return to thewinner's circle is the feel-good story of the senior tour. I mean, really, wecan dispense with the voting. Let's name him the comeback player of the yearright now. The victory was Watson's first in 23 years, and it came after anexhausting string of surgeries and rehabs all tracing back to 1985, when heblew out his wrist, elbow and neck by hitting the stump of a tree.

Winning the oldestsenior major on the toughest course the Champions tour has ever seen is animpressive feat for a man who has played in only 30 tournaments over the last14 years and has had eight or nine (Watson has lost count) operations.

When Watson beganhis latest comeback last year, after shoulder surgery, his longtime friend andcoach, David Leadbetter, told him his swing was "DOA." A lesser manwould've given up, and Watson says he was temporarily despondent last Fridaywhen he finished the first nine of the second round by going doublebogey--double bogey. Then, as he was riding to the 10th tee, he caught sight ofa man with impaired vision and a bum leg tapping his way back to the cart path."That got me," said Watson. "I thought, Geez, you have no right tobe unhappy. You get to play golf. That guy will never play golf. So that was asign from God--have a good attitude because you're pretty lucky."

Lucky? Watson wastold that he'd never play golf again after his first wrist surgery. On anotheroccasion, doctors transposed an ulnar nerve because Watson's two fingers andthumb were barely working. Then there was the time he had neck surgery in LosAngeles. Watson woke up in a body brace, complete with head halo, instead of aback brace because doctors found that the damage was worse than expected. Lastyear his right shoulder froze up, and after Watson rehabbed for three monthsand began to play again, his left shoulder gave out. That required surgery andanother 5 1/2 months of rehab.

Along the wayWatson divorced (his ex went on to marry another pro golfer named Watson: Tom)and remarried. Denis and Susan Loggans, an attorney in Chicago, have fivechildren--including two sets of twins--ranging in ages from four to six.

What makes Watson'scomeback special is how long he has waited for it and how hard he has workedfor it. His career had just begun to blossom when he was struck down. He hadthree wins on Tour in 1984, including the World Series of Golf, which carried a10-year exemption. Twenty-three years later his career is once again showingsigns of growth. "It's wonderful to be playing golf again," he says."I feel lucky."

So does everyoneelse. The Ocean course isn't on next year's schedule.

• Follow thisweek's Memorial Tournament at GOLF.com.

"Very sad, very sad," Romero said of his doubleat 14, "BUT IT'S O.K. GOLF IS LIKE THIS." (Not at most places, ElGato.)

PHOTODavid BergmanUPLIFTING Watson overcame a rash of injuries to win his first major, at the treacherous Ocean course. PHOTOPhotograph taken from the MetLife Blimp PHOTODavid BergmanCOAST CUTTER
Watson (inset) was one of only six players to break par at the wicked,windswept Ocean course.
TWO PHOTOSMIKE EHRMANN/WIREIMAGE.COM (ROBERTS 2007); JACQUELINE DUVOISIN (ROBERTS 1994)LIGHTS OUT Roberts drained everything in the '94 Open (right). PHOTODavid BergmanDUNE BUGGED Romero was caught and passed at the 14th, where his ball was one of many that plugged in a bunker. PHOTODavid BergmanGOOD TO THE LAST DROP Watson made a 10-footer on the 72nd hole to save par and wrap up a two-stroke victory.