AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | As a dense Thursday morning mist blanketed the towering pines and a sea of green and white umbrellas huddled around the tee, five patrons deep in all directions, Tom Watson stepped up to hit what could be the first of many ceremonial tee shots at the Masters.
Before he teed up his ball, he turned around to face Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, two men who have now kicked off the Masters 24 times between them.
“I would like to say how honored I am to be here with Gary and Jack,” Watson began. “I’ve watched this ceremony many times in the past with Arnie, Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson … to be a part of this thing, I am truly humbled.”
Modesty and gratitude were the tones Watson exuded Thursday as he joined a Masters tradition that dates to 1963 when Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod were formally announced as honorary starters. Watson is the 11th in a line that also includes Ken Venturi, Sam Snead and Lee Elder.
There had been no honorary starters from 2003 to 2006, just as there hadn’t been any in 1977-1980. But despite brief pauses, the celebrated tradition has endured. Palmer resumed the ceremony on his own in 2007, Nicklaus joined him in 2010 and Player made it the Big Three in 2012. Upon Palmer’s death in 2016, the ceremony continued with Nicklaus and Player. Elder, the first Black man to play in the Masters, shared an emotional moment on the first tee as an honorary starter a year ago, just seven months before he would die.
Watson was always a natural choice to become the third member of the group. He’s an eight-time major champion, twice standing up to Nicklaus in winning the 1977 and 1981 Masters. Golfers wax poetic about the languid swing of Fred Couples, but Watson, a Rolex Testimonee since 2011, possesses a truly timeless motion that could be identified in a silhouette. Few in the game’s history have approached his combined record of excellence and longevity. Watson is the only golfer to have recorded a score of 67 in at least one major across five different decades, and he made the cut in 21 consecutive Masters. His 39 PGA Tour wins spanned 24 years. His 40th victory could have come in 2009 at the Open Championship had an approach shot into the 72nd hole not been “terribly unlucky,” as Player described it in Thursday morning’s press conference.
About six weeks ago, the 72-year-old Watson received the call from tournament chairman Fred Ridley. Watson, ever the professional, first told Ridley that he didn’t feel as if he belonged in the same category as Nicklaus and Player – “I couldn’t carry their shoes,” is how Watson jokingly put it Thursday, not long after his tee shot.
That’s not how Augusta National feels, and it certainly isn’t how the golf world feels.
“You can do it for as long as you would like to,” Ridley told him.
That means Watson, one day, may soon be taking the lead as Nicklaus, 82, and Player, 86, eventually move on from their posts. It’s an honor he takes seriously. He attended the opening ceremony in 1970 when he first competed as an amateur in the Masters, and he has attended nearly all different iterations. Watson spoke at length about seeing McLeod and Hutchison, Nelson and Snead, Palmer’s last appearance in 2016, when “The King” stood on the first tee but was too sick to swing, and finally a somber experience in 2017 to honor Palmer’s passing.
“It’s just part of the heritage of the tournament that I personally very much like,” Watson said.
It’s fascinating to talk with Watson because, at some point in the conversation, it becomes apparent just how many parts of the game he has touched.
On Thursday evening as round one of the Masters was being completed, Watson sat down with Global Golf Post and a few other select media outlets in a roundtable discussion about his career. He was energetic and engaging, going deep on subjects a golf nerd can appreciate, such as how he learned from Nelson that walking a half-beat slower and taking deeper breaths was the key to being relaxed under pressure. Watson then talked at length about a topic that nobody could have seen coming: how he is heavily invested in perfecting the art of horse cutting, an equestrian event in which a competitor separates one member from a herd of cattle and carefully maneuvers his horse to keep the cow apart from the pack.
He pulled out a video explaining the concept and then launched into how he has been slow in learning the ropes, quite literally. While the Masters plays out this weekend, Watson will be in Fort Worth, Texas, for a cutting competition called the Super Stakes. He’s at about $50,000 in career earnings, but it’s really more about the thrill of competing.
“Six years ago, I said, you know my career’s about over; I’m not going to play much,” Watson said. “And my wife, she was doing this, and I’d follow her around a few of the events and I just kept on asking questions. “What’s going on? What are you doing?”
“I decided I’m going to go all in. I’m going to try something brand new in my life.”
He deserves it after everything he accomplished in the golf world.
When he first got on the PGA Tour, Watson said he learned from Nicklaus and Palmer. As a 15-year-old, Watson played in an exhibition with Palmer based off Watson’s success in the Kansas City Men’s Match Play Championship. Two years later, he faced off against Nicklaus in a similar exhibition.
When he became their colleague, Watson noticed not only how they played but that each had a gold Rolex President watch on his wrist.
“And I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool someday to be able to afford one of those?’” Watson said, laughing. “And I think in the mid-70s, I made enough money to buy the stainless steel and gold bracelet. And in 1978, I surpassed a million dollars in earnings and my wife gave me a gold presidential Rolex, and inscribed in the back and said My Million Dollar Baby.’”
He earned that the hard way. Several times during the conversation, Watson remarked that he had about seven years of exquisite golf that defined his career. What was the key? It wasn’t that he had more talent than everyone else. It was more about preparation, mastering the mental game and cleaning up his ballstriking mistakes by famously ramming home par putts into the back of the hole.
“My friends on tour called that a ‘Watson par,’” he said. “That would be when you hit it in the right trees, you chip out because you can’t get to the green, knock it on 40 feet from the hole and you hole it for a par. That putter makes up for a lot of mistakes.”
There were a few of those Watson pars in 1977, a year that forever will be remembered for his showdowns with Nicklaus. Before the famous “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry came a historic Masters. It was only his second major triumph, but the pressure of the moment felt overwhelming as he stood on the 16th tee tied with Nicklaus.
It won’t be celebrated as a historic shot, but it’s the one Watson calls the best of his Masters career.
“I hit a three-quarter 5-iron – I didn’t hit it full – and I hit a cut shot right off the bunker, right into the flag and it just covered the flag,” Watson said. “And when I hit that shot, that pressure that had built up right up here, it just drained out of my system. Because, man, it’s as good a shot as I can hit under the pressure … I went back to that one shot right there and said, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’”
Watson didn’t make the birdie putt, but he would go on to birdie No. 17 and par the 18th, clipping Nicklaus by two strokes.
Watson’s 1981 Masters victory, on the other hand, was a lesson in handling pressure. Watson stood on the 10th tee with a comfortable three-stroke lead but knew that Nicklaus and a hard-charging Johnny Miller were lurking behind him. When told that he didn’t make a mistake on the final nine – Watson went bogey-free and closed out a two-stroke victory that was never in doubt – he challenges that claim to say he actually went in the water with his second shot at No. 13.
“Thankfully, I had practiced that shot from just right of the creek earlier in the week,” Watson said. “I knew how to run it up the slope to that back hole location. I hit it to 4 or 5 feet and saved par.”
It’s fascinating to talk with Watson because, at some point in the conversation, it becomes apparent just how many parts of the game he has touched. There are the two Ryder Cup captaincies – one being a triumph in 1993 that is still the last time Americans have won on foreign soil and one being a bitter defeat – there is the 1982 U.S. Open win at Pebble Beach with his famous chip-in on the 17th hole and, of course, there’s the 2009 Open Championship that so many modern golf fans have imprinted in their memories.
His career is a true lifetime of accomplishments, stories and memories. He is quick to remind everyone that he is not Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer or Gary Player, but it’s hard to put too many other players ahead of him on the list of all-time greats.
He was asked whether, all these years later, he sees it as one of the great accomplishments in his life, perhaps even greater than some of his major victories. Perhaps that heartbreak had subsided.
“I don’t look at it that way,” said Watson, his voice lowering in volume. “I didn’t win.”
His career is a true lifetime of accomplishments, stories and memories. He is quick to remind everyone that he is not Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer or Gary Player, but it’s hard to put too many other players ahead of him on the list of all-time greats. Only five players – Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan and Player – have won more major championships. Only Harry Vardon has won more Open Championships (6) than Watson (5), who is tied with Peter Thomson, James Braid and John Henry Tayler.
That’s honorary-starter worthy.
And for as long as he would like, Tom Watson will be there on the first tee on the Thursday of Masters week.
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