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Appreciating the legacy of Tom Watson in his final Masters appearance

By: Golfshake Editor | Tue 05 Apr 2016

Post by Golf Writer, Kieran Clark

Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Walter Hagen, Gary Player and Ben Hogan. Those five legendary names are the only golfers in history who have won more of the presently determined major championships than Tom Watson, who is quietly competing in his 43rd and final Masters this week.

It is to be his 145th and – most likely – last appearance in any of the game’s four most prestigious events, of which he won eight, one more than Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, and Gene Sarazen. Masters and Augusta National founder Bobby Jones is also on seven, but the lifelong amateur never competed in the PGA Championship.

Ahead of Watson's final drive down Magnolia Lane as a competitor, there has been no significant fanfare or attention surrounding the 66-year-old’s swansong from a tournament that he first played in as an amateur back in 1970. And that is probably just how he would like it.

Unashamedly old-fashioned in both his outlook and demeanour, the Kansas-native’s on-course personality has always been understated but cordial. He quite simply gets on with the game, at a brisk pace, without any fuss. That’s something many of the stars of today could learn from.

However, unlike many of the great players of the past, who are treated reverentially beyond the point of excessiveness, Watson’s legacy within the game and its fans has been a complicated one. Finding himself as the leader of a generation that was bridging the gap between the “Big Three” and the stars that would emerge during the 1980s, the popular shadow of Palmer and Nicklaus hung over his career, particularly in the United States. He was in the right place at the wrong time.

Lacking the genial warmth or charisma that was more associated with many of his contemporaries, and those who came just before or after, the two-time Masters champion has long been characterised as a widely respected, if not beloved figure.

His outspoken indignation of Tiger Woods’ conduct, or the letter he wrote to Augusta National protesting the commentary of CBS’s Gary McCord at Augusta in 1994, would indicate an inherent piousness that has occasionally spilled over into downright sanctimony, which is the unattractive side that has sometimes reared its head publicly.

But at the same time, that unrelenting respect of tradition is the best of Watson. Fans in the United Kingdom, where he won an incredible five Open Championships, have long admired his unassuming approach to playing golf at the highest level, the stoicism in the face of adversity or bad weather. There was also the occasion when he supported Ian Woosnam from a boisterous crowd in 1991, despite both going head-to-head in the final pairing at the Masters. He didn’t have to. But it was the right thing to do.

Labelled a choker who wasn’t able to handle final-round pressure early in his career, Watson didn’t complain loudly at those charges, but rather quietly worked harder to correct them. He has always been at his best when the clubs did the talking. Winning the Masters and Open in 1977, defeating the Golden Bear in both, was the turning point, when he truly believed he could beat the best.

In eight years, Watson claimed a total of 33 titles on the PGA Tour, including seven majors. He was comfortably established as the dominant player, with Nicklaus on the wane and the Europeans yet to fully make their charge, which would be spearheaded by Seve Ballesteros, who edged ahead of the American to win the Open at St. Andrews in 1984.

Retrospectively, that now appears to be have been a watershed moment for Watson. It denied him three consecutive Claret Jugs, and equalling Harry Vardon’s record of six in the game’s oldest major. With his putting – once immaculate – failing him from short distances, he notched only one further win in the following 12 years, despite a host of opportunities, not least at the Masters.

But yet, he quietly soldiered on with a love for the game and a perennial determination to always improve. Those are the attributes of Watson that are most easy to like, and they have been a constant feature. However, as time rolled on, he was not sufficiently appreciated.

That all began to change when Nicklaus and Palmer retired from playing just over a decade ago. Golf has always inexplicably pined for father figures to look down on everything, and the line of succession fell to Watson. And it led to something of a career reassessment.

It was less than seven years ago that Watson, then approaching his 60th birthday and nursing a recent hip replacement, remarkably found himself with a putt to win the Open at Turnberry. “It would have been a hell of a story,” he reflected in the aftermath of a playoff loss to Stewart Cink.

It still is a tale that will be shared in the years to come, and one that energised that brisk swing into producing a number of age defying feats in an era dominated by power and youth. There was the 2010 Masters, when he shot an opening round of 67, the lowest ever at Augusta by a player in his seventh decade.

The following year, he made a hole-in-one at Royal St. Georges on route to finishing in a tie for 22nd, despite playing in the worst of the conditions that weekend in Kent. He became the oldest player to make the cut in an Open Championship at Lytham in 2012, breaking that record at Hoylake in 2014. And just last April, he shot 71 at Augusta to break-par at the age of 65.

It’s been a career that has enjoyed astonishingly longevity. When he stands on that first tee on Thursday, and his name is called by the starter, Watson will be the last man standing. He has seen them all off.

But sadly, time is undefeated, and it eventually catches up to all of the icons, even Tom Watson. “I’m too short now, I can’t hit the ball far enough to reasonably compete on the golf course,” he explained when confirming that this would be his final appearance.

This week, he will remember those victories in 1977 and 1981, the many near-misses, playing Augusta with his father, watching his son propose on the 13th hole, and will symbolically leave an egg-salad sandwich on the 13th tee in memory of his late former caddie Bruce Edwards.

When he walks up that 18th hole one final time, just like in the dusk at St. Andrews when he bowed out of the Open last year, there will be a subtle smile, a simple tip of the cap, and a grateful nod of respect. We should return the favour.  

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