PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA—As Tom Watson walked off the 18th green at Pebble Beach early Friday afternoon, spectators in the packed bleachers up above rose as one to offer a stirring ovation to a 60-year-old man who had just posted an even-par 71 on his favorite golf course in the second round of his 31st, and possibly last, U.S. Open championship.
Watson turned and bowed ever so slightly to acknowledge the applause, not really knowing if this day would actually be his last hurrah moment in America’s national championship of golf. His two-putt par at the 18th left him at 7 over for the tournament, 10 behind the leader at the time, Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell. Anyone within 10 shots of the lead makes the Open cut, but Watson also knew that more than half the field was still on the course, with plenty of players eminently capable of going lower than McDowell.
“It’s a long shot,” he told his caddy, 27-year-old Michael Watson, his son and proudest booster. Indeed, Watson at that moment was in a tie for 92nd place, and the rest of the afternoon would be spent wondering if anyone could get to 4 under and send him packing on the weekend.
Happily, it never happened.
Instead, Watson became the second oldest player to survive the Open cut. Sam Snead was 61 when he accomplished the feat in 1973, and Watson said he’s forever been an ardent admirer of Slammin’ Sammy’s ability, and longevity.
“I was always in awe of Sam,” he had said. “He could play until he was 78 years old. He could play, and I don’t think that’s in the cards for me.”
Watson, the 1982 Open champion at Pebble Beach, had said he expected this to be his final Open. He got into the field on a special USGA invitation, but very nearly earned his way on his own when he came so agonizingly close to winning the British Open at Turnberry last July. Many believe a Watson victory at age 59 would have been the most extraordinary individual accomplishment in the history of sports, let alone golf, where the oldest major winner was Julius Boros, 48 when he prevailed at the 1968 PGA Championship.
Watson came here this week truly thinking he had a chance to contend. He’s played countless rounds here going back to his Stanford days. Back then, he’d drive a beat-up 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle down the coast from Palo Alto and pay his $15 greens fee (now up to $495) to tee it up.
He will always be remembered for that stunning chip into the cup at the 17th hole in the final round of the ’82 Open. The shot has been replayed countless times in recent weeks and also was described in fascinating detail on a riveting Golf Channel special, “Caddy For Life,” that began airing last week. Based on the book by journalist John Feinstein, it focused on Watson’s relationship with his long-time caddie and great friend, the late Bruce Edwards, who tragically died after a heroic battle against Lou Gehrig’s disease two years ago.
Before Watson stepped up to hit that chip from deep rough, Edwards implored him to get it close. “No,” Watson told him, “I’m going to make it.” And of course he did, dashing around the green in sheer ecstasy after the ball disappeared and pointing over to Edwards as if to say, “I told you so.”
Watson said he’s tried to re-enact “The Chip” many times over the years, most recently last September while he was making an instructional video, “Lessons of a Lifetime.”
“I’ll tell you I holed it again,” he said, “but I won’t tell you how many times it took.”
Most of Watson’s week here on the Monterey Peninsula was a nostalgic trip down memory lane. In the first round, forced to wait on the 17th tee with a group ahead still on the green, he walked about 75 yards up closer to the hole, where he stopped and took in the whole scene as photographers scrambled to capture this classic Kodak moment. “He looked like royalty surveying his kingdom,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle columnist Gwenn Knapp.
Still, after his opening-round 78, Watson said he was far more interested in focusing on the present, not re-living the past, as he played on Friday.
“I had my game face on,” he said after signing for 71 that kept him in the tournament for another two days. “Today, it was ‘how am I going to get my job done?’ I’ll talk about the sentimental part later. I hate to miss the cut. I do. It grates on me. I hate it. Always have.”
And how much longer will he keep trying to make cuts and maybe, just maybe, win tournaments?
“It could be a year, could be three years,” he said two days before the start of play. “I hope it’s a long time because that’s what I am. I’m a golfer, plain and simple, a golfer. And when I can’t do it anymore on a competitive level, it’s going to be a sad day.”