Watson readies for his 43rd and final Masters

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Tom Watson needs no more proof that it is about time to put on his slippers and terry-cloth robe, pour himself a nice glass of Metamucil and start watching the Masters from a reclining position. Augusta National, after all, isn’t getting any shorter, even if, thanks to gravity, he is.

But Tuesday, just in case, there came another pointed reminder.

“How old are you?” Watson asked his amateur playing partner as the two of them strolled off the first tee, launching their midday practice round.

Chinese amateur Cheng Jin smiled and answered: 18.

“I have a grandson your age,” Watson told him. And off they headed into the glittering spring day for tee balls separated by a gap of two generations.

Watson’s 43rd and last Masters will conclude either Friday afternoon, or sometime well in front of the chaos Sunday. Odds are it’s Friday — the 66-year-old has missed the cut 16 of the past 18 years. But he remains nothing if not goal-oriented.

Jack Nicklaus remembered the first time Watson looked at him more than four decades ago: He was “like a kid with blinders on — he was going to get someplace and it didn’t matter who was in his way or what was there, he was going to get there.” Whatever of that competitive quality still remains within him will be focused on one goal this week.

“This is a lot when I first joined the Tour in the sense that all I’m trying to do is make the cut,” Watson said Tuesday

Whenever Watson does make that last uphill climb to the 18th green, waving and flashing the gap-toothed smile that always gave a very serious man a Huck Finn veneer, it will signal the chipping away of a significant portion of the history on the hoof on display during the Masters.

This year’s goodbye golfer likely will be the last of the multiple Masters champions to make his final walk for a while. He is the last of an era really, as it has been noted that Watson is the only man in the 2016 field who began his Masters playing career when both co-founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts were alive.

In that role, he occupies a peculiar niche in the sentimental scrapbook of the Masters. It is not one quite as readily accessible to these fans who love nothing better than to send their legends off on unrestrained waves of gratitude.

Watson is not the guy you associate with an almost fierce affection for April in Augusta, like the fellow who walked the Masters green mile last year, Ben Crenshaw.

Nor does he carry into his moment the historical heft of Arnold Palmer or Nicklaus or even Gary Player, men who changed the course of the game in part by their Masters deeds.

The Masters never defined Watson. He always will be the laird of the British Open, five of his eight major titles coming abroad. And he already has had what figured to be his most meaningful send-off — last year, fittingly, at St. Andrews.

But lest we lose sight, the tournament and the man were very, very good for each other.

For an eight-year period beginning in 1977, the year of the first of his two Masters victories, Watson had seven top-five finishes. If not for a shot into the people on the 72nd hole in 1978 and losing in a three-playoff to a wild card named Fuzzy Zoeller, Watson might have ripped off three consecutive green jackets.

Last year at the age of 65, Watson shot 71 in the first round, becoming the oldest competitor to break par in the tournament. Let’s keep that 81 Watson shot the following day just between us.

The one man who has the ultimate right to rank players, the one who Watson measured himself against, would recommend we take his departure seriously. “I’d put him in one of the best five or six players who ever played the game,” Nicklaus said.

On his final tour of the Masters, there will be certain landmarks that will remind him this tournament mattered greatly. As is his tradition, Watson will leave an egg-salad sandwich on the bench at the 13th tee as a memorial to his late caddie Bruce Edwards, who died in 2004 of Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

And when he pulls the club back on the par-3 16th, how can he not flash back to what he said was the most significant shot of his long Masters run — the 5-iron he hit there in 1977? Dueling head-to-head with Nicklaus, he hit to 12 feet that long-ago Sunday, and the player who had been deemed a choke artist by some of the cynical media found peace.

“I’m tied with the greatest player in the world and I hit this shot, and the pressure just went like that,” he said. Here he exhaled deeply and lowered his hand from chin level to belt. You beat Nicklaus for your first green jacket, you have reached the mountaintop.

Watson is not quitting on golf altogether. In fact, he is scheduled to appear next week at TPC Sugarloaf in the Champions Tour Mitsubishi Electric Classic.

But it can’t be the same as what he’ll leave behind here this week. What both he and the Masters will be losing is irreplaceable.