An Old Master Fades Away

The Masters Tournament, the 80th edition of which begins Thursday in Augusta, Georgia, attracts the drive-by golf fans, those who tend toward an abridged, Augusta-centric version of history. In this CliffsNotes chronicle, Jack deposed Arnie in the ’60s and ruled until his epic Masters victory at age 46, 30 years ago.

Après Jack? A period of unremarkable parity until the Tiger era commenced.

Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods will be at Augusta National this week for the Masters, but physical frailty—induced by age and injury—consigns all three to ceremonial cameos. That leaves the role of sentimental favorite to Tom Watson, who will make his 43rd and final Masters appearance. His farewell offers a timely reminder to casual fans that Nicklaus was himself overthrown by a young rival, one who has aged into the sport’s most durable and complicated icon.

I first became interested in golf as a teenager growing up in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s and was immediately (and inexplicably) drawn to Watson, eagerly seeking out his results in newspaper box scores. Even then, his best days were in his rear-view mirror. He had won his eighth major championship in 1983—he beat Nicklaus down the stretch in four of them—and a year later earned his 36th PGA Tour victory. Then, suddenly, at 34, Superman found his Kryptonite. He contended frequently, but on Sunday afternoons his short putts missed the hole with a demoralizing predictability. Twelve years passed with just one win.

Tom-Watson-622_13
Tom Watson during his controversial Ryder Cup captaincy in 2014.

Through it all, Watson’s demeanor remained one of flinty stoicism.

In his book The Secret of Golf Joe Posnanski drew a portrait of Thomas Sturges Watson as a man who didn’t play for fans or money, and perhaps not even for trophies. Golf was about being better today than he was yesterday, and better still tomorrow. Anything else was failure. That mindset was evident in an incident Posnanski recounted: Watson was playing Pebble Beach and deposited a shot into the Pacific Ocean. A friend later asked Watson why he continued watching the ball so intently even long after its watery fate had become apparent. “Because that was my punishment,” he replied.

Even for his fans, Watson can be a complicated man to root for. He is always opinionated, often brusque and sometimes sanctimonious. He is a scold, and was the first player to publicly rebuke Woods for on-course antics like profanity and excessive fist-pumping. His letter criticizing CBS announcer Gary McCord for insufficient reverence during the Masters back in 1994 got McCord banned from the broadcast. He makes no secret of his affinity for Rush Limbaugh and distaste for Obamacare. He doesn’t do coddling. That was made painfully apparent during his 2014 Ryder Cup captaincy, a collision between a man who thinks raising the Stars and Stripes ought to be motivation enough and a young group of players to whom he simply couldn’t—or wouldn’t—relate. His autocratic leadership style saw winning players arbitrarily benched, losing players berated and team unity in tatters as the USA was heavily defeated. He was just too old-school.

But that week also offered a glimpse of the Watson it is much easier to cheer. At the post-match press conference, the captain found himself under a bus driven by his star player, Phil Mickelson. Faced with a public blame game he knew would enhance no one’s reputation, Watson greeted the embarrassing insurrection with diplomacy and a pained smile, as if fixed by rigor mortis. He is just too old-school.

Among Watson’s contemporaries, the lucky ones long ago found safe harbor in the TV booth. The others are too decrepit now to compete even on the old guy circuit. Watson alone has soldiered on. In 2009, he came within one putt of winning a ninth major at the Open Championship, a few weeks shy of his 60th birthday. That kind of Scottish links golf lets guile compete against raw power. Augusta National once did so too, but not anymore.

There will be no valiant last charge for the now 66-year-old two-time champion in his final Masters. His last decent finish was 4th in 1997, a distant 14 strokes adrift of Woods in his breakout romp. Augusta National immediately toughened its defenses, and Watson didn’t have the weapons to counter. Only twice since then has he made the cut to play on the Masters weekend, and has bettered par in just four of his last 40 rounds in the event. He is just too old-school.

“It’s a golf course that’s just too long for me,” he admitted when announcing that this year would be his last competing. “It’s time. It’s time for me to leave another spot for somebody who’s more capable than I am to compete there.”

He will take his leave this week with nothing more than a respectful tip of his cap. He doesn’t much care for this confessional era, in which every emotional high and low is spread-eagled on social media. The triumphs and disasters of Watson’s career are etched on a face that now bears only a faded vestige of that gap-toothed Midwestern kid who toppled Nicklaus and earned the moniker “Huckleberry Dillinger.” Some revealing timelines can’t be deleted.

Sports fans have wearied of seeing their heroes drop the halo and end up accused of everything from unsportsmanlike conduct to outright felonies. Against that backdrop, we should not stint on the applause for a man who has never wavered in his professionalism, comportment and fidelity to the purest ideals of the game. Watson may not have earned the affection of his fellow players, but he certainly has their respect.

Having survived to the weekend only once in the past 13 years, it’s likely that Watson will sink the final putt of his 145th and last major championship on Friday afternoon. The young stars focused on winning the green jacket this weekend would do well to pause a moment with the rest of us and watch him bow out. If they’re fortunate, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy and Jason Day and Rickie Fowler will enjoy the views Watson experienced atop the game’s highest peaks. And when golf heaves them into those deep valleys—and it will, every one of them—well, Watson leaves a pretty darn good standard for how to handle that too.

Published at Newsweek.com, April 4, 2016.

 

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