AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | As a much younger man, Tom Watson played a Masters practice round at Augusta National with the late Byron Nelson and watched in awe the way the grand old man dealt with the difficult 440-yard 14th hole.
“Byron hit a drive out there and said, ‘Tom, this is the way we used to play this hole,’ ” Watson recalled last week. “He took a 3-wood and drilled a low runner and knocked it a foot from the hole, knocked it 40 yards short of the green and ran it up there and said, ‘That’s how we used to play it.’ ”
“Well,” Watson deadpanned, “that’s how I’m having to play it now.”
However Watson had to play this past week, it often was working for a 60-year-old, two-time Masters champion who shot 67 on Thursday. That matched the best round he had ever posted in 37 appearance at Augusta National, even if he’s playing with an artificial hip. For several hours, he became the oldest first-round leader in Masters history, until that 50-year-young whippersnapper Fred Couples, sockless and in tennis shoes to ease the strain on his balky back, did him one better, posting a 66, his best career round in 26 starts.
That same day, 52-year-old Bernhard Langer was leading the event at 3 under until he stumbled slightly on the back nine and shot 71. And Sandy Lyle, also 52, was among 16 players in the field to shoot in the 60s, with his own splendid 69. In all, six players 40-and-over were among the 31 men who broke par that memorable day, a year after then 48-year-old Kenny Perry lost here in a playoff and Watson nearly pulled off what would have been the most astounding story in golf history, losing a playoff in the Open Championship at Turnberry after a truly unlucky bogey at the 72nd hole cost him the title in regulation.
Reality set in on Friday when Couples’ back started bothering him on the way to a 75, Watson struggled with his short game and posted 74 and Langer and Lyle both missed the cut. Still, Watson and Couples lingered around contention, tied for ninth, only five shots off the 36-hole lead. Couples followed up with a Saturday 68 and strolled into Sunday alone in fifth place, just five back of Lee Westwood’s lead. Sunday he carded 70 and wound up sixth.
Watson and Couples surely struck a resounding blow for middle-aged golfers worldwide with their inspiring play. As ageless golf writer Dan Jenkins tweeted after the first round, “maybe Jack and Arnold should have gone 18.”
He was referring to Arnold Palmer, 80, and Jack Nicklaus, 70, who served as honorary Masters starters Thursday and walked from the first tee into the clubhouse after striking the ceremonial first ball just after 8 a.m. One of the hundreds of witnesses that morning was Watson, who actually stood up on a stool near the first tee to get a better view of his old friends and rivals.
Nicklaus had his own special moments here in the final round of the 1998 Masters, when, at age 58, he soared up the leaderboard on the front nine Sunday. His stirring performance that memorable afternoon evoked sonic-boom roars every step of the way, ending with a 68 and a tie for sixth place, clearly setting a geriatric precedent that obviously has continued a dozen years later.
How to explain why so many players in what should be the twilight of their careers are playing at such a high level.
Space-age equipment and advances in golf ball technology have allowed older players to hit the ball as long, if not longer, than they once did in their primes twenty and thirty years ago.
At Augusta National, it’s all about experience after so many years learning the subtleties of the course, where to hit it and where to avoid what Watson described as scorecard “tragedies,” particularly on the trickiest and fastest warp-speed greens in the game.
Over the last 20 years, most players have been spending far more time in the gym and far less time in the 19th hole, the better to stay fit enough to compete with the 20- and 30-something flat bellies in order to earn their own fair share from the wheel of fortune in mega-million dollar purses.
Now, with so much money available to the over-50 set on the Champions Tour, the old guys watch what they eat, keep pumping iron and pounding balls on the range to stay fit. Playing well in major championships is simply another by-product of all that hard work.
“Before the senior tour, what happened to the old guys?” said Watson, who finished 18th. “They had no place to play, really. No place to stay competitive. And we do now … Ask Freddie (Couples). Freddie’s right there. He can carry the ball 300 yards still in the air.”
Balky back and all.