Watson grateful for long goodbye in last refuge for the old champs
Compared to the old greats of golf, with their long goodbyes, Frank Sinatra fled the stage one night and was never seen again. But there was unmistakable finality about Tom Watson's final walk up the 18th at Augusta on Friday night as Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy were claiming ownership of the Masters.
Golf's charm - overdone sometimes, some might say - is that it keeps a role in the movie for iconic veterans who are no longer contenders. Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer were for a long time part of the action even when Tiger Woods had taken the game away from them.
Watson's last Masters round, though, moves these Twentieth Century legends out of the main frame and into their own newsreel of heroic exploits, with the Augusta National - which honours past champions for life - as their spiritual headquarters.
As Spieth, 22, and McIlroy, 26, wooed the crowds, Watson was wiping away tears on the walk up 18. "It's just one of those dreams that came true for me. I watched Arnold Palmer win and Jack start winning," he said.
"And I had dreams that maybe someday I could play in the Masters. And lo and behold - 43 times." Watson, 66, missed the cut by two shots, in his 134th Masters round, joining Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam among the also-rans. Woosnam stomped off the course after shooting 82 and 81 and declared he would not be back.
Larry Mize and the 58-year-old Bernhard Langer (who was tied for 15th) were left to carry the torch for the generation after Watson. All have been usurped by today's gym-honed athletes, with their fast clubhead speeds and monster drives.
Is all this overplayed? The middle-aged will answer no. We see in great figures in sport our own journey towards reduced powers. Protracted it may have been, but this slow exit of the men who lent golf mass global appeal still offers a context for the changed game played by McIlroy, Spieth and Jason Day.
And even if you feel Watson's generation should step aside and stop taking the limelight, the nostalgia remains oddly compelling.
"I remember Arnie going up [the 18th] the last time, and Jack going up the last time. Ben [Crenshaw] last year, going up the last time," Watson said.
"Yeah, it's sad; it's sad that the era is over." Augusta remains the safest refuge for the old champ (Watson won it way back in 1977 and 1981). "I'm grateful for the fact that they allow the past champions to pick the time they say, no mas, to retire. I think that's really a good thing," he said.
"I know a few years back, there was some talk about maybe setting an age for retirement, but it didn't work. I think we know when it's time. That is what makes the Masters unique."
With Palmer in poor health, and unable to hit a ball in Thursday's ceremonial tee-off, darkness is closing in on the game's Mount Rushmore.
Watson says: "I remember crying like a baby when I played with Jack when he played his last professional golf tournament against the kids. That was at the Open Championship at St Andrews, and I was crying like a baby. Just here is the greatest player who's ever played the game, he's taking his last walk, and I'm lucky enough to be in the same group, inside the ropes with him. That was really special. I still tear up thinking about that. Jack has meant so much to me in my career."
Watson talks a lot about "the kids". He says: "I'm glad I don't have to hit the five woods and three woods at 18 anymore. That's what it's all about.
"That's the reason I'm not playing here anymore. These kids are hitting it up there and they are hitting seven irons and eight irons on 18, and I'm back there trying to hit a three wood on that green. It's a little bit out of my league now, the golf course - certain holes, in particular.
"There's some melancholy to it, to a degree. But I can't play this golf course anymore. I'm a realist. If I could still play this golf course I wouldn't be retiring.
"And that's the honest fact. I know that next year, six weeks before the Masters starts, I'm not going to have anything to do because I don't have to prepare for the Masters like I always have for my entire career."
For Watson, golf was a way of overcoming shyness - "kind of a nonverbal way of communicating". He first met Palmer in Athens, Ohio, in 1958, when Watson was 18 and "Arnold was 28". Hearing these tales about golf's pre-commercialised era from men who are still on the scene, with clubs still in their hands, is to understand golf's unique capacity to keep all its generations together, in one clubhouse. In other sports, they are mostly dispersed to the wind.
The plaque between 17 and 18 honours a player, who, 30 years ago, achieved arguably the greatest of all Masters victories: Nicklaus, who won at 46, 11 years after his most recent triumph. Nicklaus's presence here is the strongest reminder not to begrudge the drawn-out goodbyes of his contemporaries.
"I know I'm going to continue to play against the old guys," Watson said. "I doubt if I'll play against the kids anymore. But the unique thing about this tournament is that it brings all the champions together, whether they're playing in the tournament or not. It's a congregation of the greats that played. That's what makes this tournament unique and I appreciate it."
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