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Tom Watson: One More Title?

Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

(continued from page 2)

Then came what many golf aficionados call The Miracle. Standing ankle-deep in the rough, with the winds buffeting his slight torso, Watson hit a very high chip shot that seemed to have enough momentum to roll six to eight feet past the cup. Yet the ball broke right, straight into the cup. The crowd roared, and Watson went on to birdie the 18th and take his long-sought U.S. Open crown.

"Sure, that Open stands out as one of my most satisfying triumphs; I played great golf and defeated the greatest player in the game," says Watson. "Then I had to use my head to beat Jack. He was the best thinker on the course who ever came down the pike. He'd play away from hazards, avoid shots which could cost him a tournament, and to beat him at Pebble Beach or at Turnberry [the 1977 British Open], I also had to think. For sure, winning the Open was my most important win overall."

That victory was so fulfilling that Watson returned to Pebble Beach a few months later to stage his own version of Play It Again, Sam. After enjoying a celebratory dinner with friends Robert Trent Jones Jr., former U.S. Golf Association president Sandy Tatum, and Hank Ketchum, the cartoonist who created "Dennis the Menace," he suddenly left the restaurant, returned with a few clubs and balls, and proposed a midnight trip back to the 17th hole.

"I said, 'Gentlemen, let's go try The Shot,'" Watson says with a laugh, apparently still amused by his out-of-character antics. "So there we go, out to the course in the dark of night. It wasn't easy finding the exact spot, but what finally happens? I sculled balls over the green."

The incident might dramatize the Huck Finn, fun-loving side of Watson's personality. But nothing was humorous about his play a few years after that glorious '82 Open triumph.

While winning three times in 1984 and once in '87,Watson was no longer the dominant player who had putted his way to 21 triumphs from 1978 to 1982 (and 68 Top Ten finishes). He'd occasionally sink an unlikely putt and at times his ball-striking was so magnificent, observers likened him to the "Watson of old." Yet tentative on the greens and continually losing his confidence, he faded from the leaderboard for nearly a decade. Then he seemed like just another vulnerable past-tense champion, struggling to find himself and his putting stroke.

"Missing so many four- and five-footers to lose tournaments, it just seemed my putting went topsy-turvy on me for 10 years," rues Watson. During this stretch he blew the last-round lead in the 1994 British Open with two consecutive double bogeys, and later admitted, "This was my most discouraging moment. My putter felt like an anvil."

There were other disasters. Missing two three-footers at the 1987 U.S. Open, he lost by only one stroke to Scott Simpson. In 1994 at Pebble Beach, he squandered the lead by three-putting several times.

Now Watson laments, "The bittersweet part is that I started to hit the ball better in the '90s, but my putting was bad, real bad. I got nervous over the short putts and I wasn't making good strokes. It wasn't the yips. My strokes were just going inside the line too much. I kept pushing the putt to the right of the hole. Then I'd fight against that, try to make the ball go to the left, and since I wasn't keeping my head down, I didn't penetrate, accelerate through the ball at impact. It was a difficult time, very difficult. I still haven't figured out what kept me going. Maybe I'm just hardheaded."

Though most players would have tried a cross-handed grip, a long putter or just about anything to escape the throes of that slump, Watson was too proud, as some Tour observers suggested, to go the gimmick route. Obsessed with his mechanics, he stubbornly tried to refine his swing path and setup, ever believing that "golf is a game where you have to take personal responsibility. Forget the excuses. You just can't blame a poorly hit shot on anything but yourself." As he passionately told Sports Illustrated's John Garrity, "I'm stubborn in the sense that I think I can make it work. I will make it work." He still struggled, for years, and the once-anointed Mr. One Putt eventually gave himself a new nickname, "Hammer-mitts."

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