by John Huggan
It was the sort of emotional send-off he deserved, albeit two days earlier than he and every golf fan was hoping for. No matter. The clearly heartfelt standing ovation accorded two-time Masters winner Tom Watson as he made his way up Augusta National’s 18th fairway for the last time was a fitting way to say goodbye to a great champion.
He nearly went out in style, too. Putting from approximately 70 feet for a birdie, Watson left his ball inches short, right on line. It was a magnificent effort, one made all the more impressive by the fact that the five-time Open champion was close to tears as he settled into his address position.
“I really didn’t think I was going to cry,” he said to his caddie and close friend, Neil Oxman.
There was no shame in that of course. After 43 appearances in the year’s first Major, Watson was saying farewell, only nine months after he did the same to The Open at St Andrews last July. That he shot a second-round 78 after an opening 74 to miss the halfway cut by two shots was largely irrelevant. No one cared, least of all Watson’s playing partners, Lee Westwood and Charley Hoffman. In a nice touch, both removed their caps to applaud the 66-year old legend (had he made it through to the weekend he would have become the oldest-ever to do so in the Masters) as he made his way down the last green to tap-in for that closing par.
“It wasn’t just the moment coming up 18; it was just how much he is loved here by all the patrons and the players as well,” said Westwood.
Indeed, the final few holes of Watson’s Masters career – he made his Augusta debut as an amateur in 1970 – were dotted with emotion and tribute. Most notably, he stood for 20 seconds on the 17th fairway gazing into the gallery on the left side, clearly taking it all in for one last time. One hole later he was typically having none of Oxman’s initial efforts to walk up the fairway and allow Watson his moment alone.
“He was going to plough out ahead of me and let me have my glory and I said, ‘no way, you’re walking up the last hole with me’,” said Watson, whose brace of Masters victories came in 1977 and 1981. “I told him how much I appreciated what he has done for me and I started to tear up. It was special to be able to walk up there with him.”
Watson’s generosity towards his caddie came 24 hours after he had paid his annual tribute to his former bagman, Bruce Edwards, who died at the age of 49 on the opening day of the 2004 Masters from what America calls “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or Motor Neurone Disease). Because Edwards always packed an egg sandwich for Watson to eat in private on the secluded 13th tee at Augusta National, the ‘tradition’ has continued. On the first day of every Masters since Edwards’ passing, Watson has left an egg sandwich on the bench by the tee. And he did so again this year.
“Bruce loved to caddie and he loved to caddie here more than any place in the world,” said Watson. “He just thought this was the neatest golf tournament there ever was. I loved to see his enthusiasm.”
The same can be said of Watson. Even after his creditable two-over-par opening round, he was still talking like the tough competitor he has always been.
“I think 74 is not bad for old folks,” he said with a smile. “I can’t complain. But every round of golf I’ve ever played could have been better. Still, it could have been worse, too. I made a long putt at the third (for what was his only birdie of the day). And I made some good putts that I was very happy with.”
There was also a mark of the man’s supreme sportsmanship. Addressing an 18-inch putt on the 7th green, his ball moved and cost him a penalty stroke.
So he was right; he should have been at least one shot better. And he certainly wasn’t feeling sorry for himself.
“You just move on,” he said. “I learned a long time ago that if you start whining and crying about things that happen it’s going to make you a worse player. You’re not going to be much of a success. You’ve just got to carry on.”
Happily too, we haven’t quite seen the last of the eight-time Major champion. There is even the slight possibility that he may even make what would surely be an even more emotional return to The Open championship at Royal Birkdale next year. Victory in the Senior British Open at Carnoustie this July would take care of that.
“It’s sad that the era is over,” he said. “It’s sad that my era of PGA Tour golf and playing the Masters and playing against the kids is over. But I still intend to play against the old guys. I still feel like I can play a little bit. I still like to compete. And I’m going to continue to do that on a limited basis.”
But that is for the future. Understandably, Watson’s closing thoughts were all about looking back on his time at the Masters and Augusta National.
“I’m grateful for the fact that they allow the past champions to pick the time they say ‘no mas’ and retire,” he said. “I know a few years back there was talk of maybe setting an age for retirement. But it didn’t work. I think we know when it is time. So let us make the call. That’s what makes the Masters unique compared to all the other tournaments, all the other Majors. I still think that’s a very special thing about this tournament.”
True. But now there is one less…