Tom Watson evinced so much aw-shucks modesty last week during
the Senior PGA Championship at Ridgewood Country Club in
Paramus, N.J., that you might have thought he was just another
Missouri farm boy on holiday. On Wednesday he said, "My time has
passed," when asked why he didn't try to qualify for the U.S.
Open, an event he'd entered for the last 29 years. On Saturday
he responded, "I'm not one of the golfers the crowds come out to
see," when asked why he didn't play in more Senior tour events.
Even on Sunday, after he'd held off Jim Thorpe to win his first
Senior major, Watson stuck to the script. "It doesn't matter
who's in the hunt," he said. "If you have a good show, people
are going to watch."
That may be true, but having a first-rate cast never hurts. The
mano a mano with Thorpe doesn't rank up there with Watson's
showdowns against Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977 and at
Pebble Beach in '82, but it was nonetheless just what the Senior
tour needed. Suffering from a dearth of name players, flagging
attendance, almost invisible TV ratings and a spate of bad press,
the tour turned to Watson, who became eligible for the tour last
season, for help. Instead, he entered only 13 Senior events in
2000 and was heavily criticized for blowing off this year's first
Senior major, the Tradition, in April, to play in a regular Tour
event in Hilton Head, S.C. The funny thing is, Watson hasn't made
a cut on the big Tour in more than 10 months and needs the Senior
tour as much as it needs him.
The 2001 Senior PGA had all the ingredients for success. Although
steeped in tradition, the 64-year-old tournament had been on life
support for years, and in 1999 the PGA of America decided to move
the event out of Florida for the first time since 1938.
Ridgewood, with its narrow fairways and overhanging trees, proved
to be an excellent choice because the tournament attracted record
crowds--over 80,000 fans for the week, more than twice as many as
in previous years--and, more important, was a stern test for the
players. Although steady rain softened Ridgewood, the stroke
average (74.43) during the Senior PGA was the tour's highest of
The course satisfied Watson's competitive jones. "At a normal
Senior tour event, 14 under would finish eighth, and that's for
three rounds," Bruce Edwards, Watson's longtime caddie, said of
the winning score. "If they set up the courses to be more
difficult, I'm sure he'd play more. Don't all good players like a
Besides benefiting from its location near New York City, the
tournament caught some breaks from the weather, which never lived
down to the ominous forecasts, and from the early buzz created by
the Big Three of Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, who
were all within four shots of the lead after the first round.
Palmer, who on Thursday shot his age (71) for the second time
this year, ballooned to an 83 on Friday, while Nicklaus and
Player fell back with a 75 and a 73, respectively.
As the Big Three faltered, the tournament turned into a stage for
B-listers Allen Doyle and Bob Gilder until late on Saturday, when
Watson took control by closing with five straight birdies to
shoot a five-under 66 and tie for first with Gilder and Thorpe at
nine under. Watson's binge culminated with a 45-foot snake at the
par-4 18th. "That was one of the few putts of that length in a
long, long time that I really felt I was going to make," he said.
"I felt like the young Tom Watson."
The yips have long bedeviled Watson--"If I'm outside eight feet,
I'm good; if I'm inside six feet, watch out," he says--but last
week his ball-striking was so solid that it made up for the
occasional hiccup on the greens. "He put the ball in places we
could putt from," Edwards said. Using a 13-degree fairway wood
off most tees, Watson hit 42 of 56 fairways. More impressive, he
led all players in greens hit in regulation (80.3%) and was 15
for 18 during the final round.
Watson birdied four of five holes midway through Sunday's round,
and when he added another on 13 to reach 14 under and open a
three-stroke lead on Thorpe, it looked as if he would coast to
victory. However, he lipped out a two-footer for par at the 14th
after Thorpe had birdied, and, just like that, the game was on.
Thorpe made an 18-footer for birdie at 16 to grab a share of the
lead--for about 45 seconds, which is how long Watson needed to top
him with a 12-footer. At the 559-yard par-5 17th Thorpe, trying
to reach the green in two, hit a driver off the deck but yanked
it so deep into the woods "they had to pipe in sunshine," he
said, yet he saved par.
The tournament came down to an eight-foot birdie putt on the 18th
green, which Thorpe had to make to force sudden death. After
taking a couple of deep breaths, he missed to the left. "If I
couldn't win," he said, "I'm glad Tom did because it's good for
Senior golf." Added Doyle, "Hopefully, this will motivate him to
play out here more. We need him."
Perhaps, when Watson's back home riding horses on his 400-acre
ranch outside Kansas City, Mo., he will have pleasant memories of
Ridgewood and the Senior tour, on which he has won three times.
On Sunday, though, he said he wouldn't alter his plans. He'll
continue to play about 20 events a year, regardless of the tour.
He has committed to play in two Senior tournaments in June, the
NFL Classic at Upper Montclair Country Club in Clifton, N.J., and
the U.S. Senior Open at Salem (Mass.) Country Club, as well as
the Senior Players at the TPC of Michigan, in Dearborn, in early
Regardless of Watson's schedule, the Senior tour took heart from
what happened at Ridgewood. "We had great galleries, which was
fantastic considering the weather," said Nicklaus, who wound up
in 12th place, 11 shots behind Watson. "I don't buy it when
somebody tells me something's wrong with Senior golf."
Everything was right in Watson's world when he was presented the
Bourne Trophy on Sunday evening. He has won eight majors on the
regular Tour, but the PGA is the one big prize that has eluded
him. Though he conceded that the Bourne was not the Wanamaker,
Watson made it clear that his victory meant more to him than
simply putting on a good show. When he spoke of his father,
Raymond, who died last year, his voice quavered. "He probably
had a lot to do with why I won today," Tom said. "I know he's up
there saying, 'Son, you finally won it.'" Composing himself,
Watson smiled and added, "He's also saying, 'Why the hell did
you three-putt 14?'"
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID BERGMAN