Eagles elevate Watson's game almost to victory

JOHN EISENBERG

April 15, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- They will be telling the story for years. How Tom Watson put his game back together at age 41 and almost won the Masters. How he put a ball in the water on the 12th hole of the last round, apparently ending his challenge. How he came back so magnificently, with two eagles on the next three holes, sending through the tall pines a batch of pealing roars louder than any since Jack Nicklaus rattled the azaleas in 1986.

They will be telling the story for years, and it will shine each time, shine as brightly as Watson did during these four days at Augusta National. Ah, but that ending. That ending is just a killer. Watson standing on the 18th tee in a three-way tie for the lead. Watson driving the ball into the trees to the right of the fairway. Snapping his head to the side in frustration. Cursing. Finishing tied for third. A silent, silent ending.

Ian Woosnam won the tournament and Jose-Maria Olazabal finished second, but this Masters belonged to Watson. Watson and his eagles. His eagles and his return to grace. His return to grace and his oh-so-human skittishness that showed all week on those short putts that kept coming round to bedevil him. The echoes are so very Shakespearean. To have and have not.

"It just wasn't good enough," Watson said, there not being much to say, of course. "I made some great shots and missed a couple of key shots. I feel great about how I played. I showed myself that I can still play this game. But I'm very disappointed. To have a chance like that, to be right where you wanted and make a mistake like that, it's very disappointing."

Wonderful and awful and inspiring and disappointing, and all such a blur, the highs and lows and highs and lows coming so fast on the back nine. Watson was three strokes behind Woosnam through nine holes. Made up two strokes on the 10th. Gave one back on the 11th. Up, down, up, down. Came to the 12th two behind, stared out at that beautiful, wretched little par-3, the gallery beseeching him to hit the flag.

"And I hit a terrible 7-iron, just made a bad swing," he said. "It felt loose at the top [of the swing] and I tried to recover, but didn't. I started it out right at the hole, which is all wrong, and it kept fading and fading and fading and went right in the water."

A neat, clean splash, the sound of a story ending. Watson put his head down and walked slowly to the drop area, his pumped-up body English gone flat suddenly, all slumps and sulks. He cleared the green with his next shot and wound up with a five, losing two strokes, now four behind. Poof, his character had just disappeared from the play.

But there was a backup on the 13th tee and he sat for five, 10, 15 minutes, not talking to the other players, just sitting there thinking about what he had done and what was left. "I told myself that, well, there were birdie holes left, 13 and 15, and if I could eagle them both maybe I still had a chance. And that's exactly what happened."

The 13th and 15th are par-5s reachable in two in the right conditions, and the conditions were right yesterday. Watson hit a 5-iron 195 yards to the 13th green, clearing the little creek in front, his ball stopping on the lower tier of the sloped green, 15 feet from the cup. He rolled the putt in and his character was back in the play and he pumped his fist and smiled. And the noise just rose up and up.

After parring the 14th, he again pulled out his 5-iron to hit his approach to the 15th. This one, well, was magic. The ball flew over the creek, landed on the green and stopped to the right of the cup, eight feet away. His putt rolled right in and the noise -- what a din -- echoed all over the course as the score went up on the leader boards by the greens.

Suddenly, remarkably, the tournament had three leaders and one was Watson, with his ball probably still sinking to the bottom of the lake in front of the 12th. They will be telling the story for years. Telling about those eagles. About all the short putts he missed, and what they might have meant. Those lousy short putts and those eagles. Watson tied for the lead. The story should end there. A sweet ending, not the silent one.

But it ends after his pars on the 16th and 17th, with him standing on the 18th tee, still tied for the lead, a par probably landing him no worse than a spot in a playoff. His drive flying to the right. "Just opened up the club too much and shoved it in the trees," he said, practically spitting, as if the words were curses. "Experience helps at certain times, but it sure didn't help me there."

TC His tried to run his second shot through the trees to the green, but wound up in a bunker in front of the green. His chip out almost landed on the hole, a last burst of magic, almost, but rolled on 30 feet beyond. His desperate putt went long. Woosnam sank his, and it was over. He got into a cart with his wife and rode toward the press room and people hailed him and he smiled. But it hurt. You know it did.

Watson won the last of his eight major championships in 1982, almost a decade ago, and has since fought his game as a boxer fights an opponent, his putter an absolute mystery, his swing elusive. He has gotten it all back together a couple of times in majors, in the 1987 U.S. Open and 1989 British Open, but has never been able to finish off his business. And now it has happened again. The Masters was his this year. He just didn't win it.

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