AUGUSTA., Ga. -- Tom Watson’s time as a competitor at the Masters came to an end Friday, but unlike Ben Crenshaw’s final walk a year ago, Watson’s last lap around Augusta National was more than merely ceremonial.

Having only played the weekend twice since 1997, Watson had a legitimate shot at extending his Masters career another 36 holes, heading into his final nine holes just one stroke outside the cut line.

In the end, he simply didn’t have enough, finishing with a 78 and a heartfelt ovation as he walked up 18. It was exceptional for a 66-year-old, but not what’s required to compete on the 7,435-yard brawny ball yard, something Watson alluded to earlier in the week.

“I have one of those tape measures and that tape measure used to extend out to 265 yards carry off the tee,” Watson said. “Now it doesn’t do that anymore. It’s 250 yards off the tee. … The reality of it is that I really can’t play the golf course anymore.”

That may be true, but when he could play it, there were few better. There was consistency and longevity, and most of all, victories. Watson’s Masters wins in 1977 and 1981 were especially dramatic in the way they helped him wrest the mantle of best player in the game away from Jack Nicklaus. He had 15 top-10 finishes and six times was in the top three. From 1975-1995 Watson made 21 consecutive cuts and then, two years later at age 47, he finished fourth. In all, he teed it up in 43 Masters.

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For Watson, however, the memories extend beyond the scorecard and green jackets to moments such as playing Augusta National with his father and Gene Sarazen. It was taking inspiration from a painful moment in 1975 in his first Masters as a professional. Playing with Nicklaus, Watson was still on the periphery of contention as he played the 16th hole on Sunday. Before Nicklaus made his “Bear Tracks” putt en route to victory, Watson double-crossed his tee shot into the water and then drowned another ball after the drop, eventually making a quadruple-bogey 7.

Two years later it was Watson’s turn. Playing in the final group and just behind Nicklaus, he watched the Golden Bear birdie seven of the first 15 holes. The 27-year-old Watson responded in kind with birdies on six of the first 15 before applying the crusher—a 20-footer on 17 that led to his first green jacket.

“Being around the greats, it inspired me,” Watson said. “I had a lot of inspiration, and I learned from them.”

On Friday, Watson seemed relaxed on the first tee, quipping to caddie Neil Oxman, “Got any words of wisdom?” Moments later, he heard for the last time as an official competitor, “Fore, please. Tom Watson now driving.” He stopped for a brief chat on the fourth tee with a young lad no more than 5 years old and appeared to look around more than normal. “There’s some melancholy to a degree,” Watson admitted afterwards.

The finale was fitting. Watson’s approach shot to 18 ran 69 feet past the hole to the back of the green. Perhaps it was his way of extending the walk just a little longer. As he came up 18, with Oxman on the bag shedding tears by his side, Watson thanked the patrons with applause of his own and a thump to his heart—fitting for a man who has shown so much of it over the years. Then, using four-plus decades of local knowledge, he cozied the putt down the hill, let it take the slope and watched it come to rest inches left of the hole. A tap-in par closed out his Masters career.

Not that we’ve seen the last of Watson at Augusta National. He played this year’s Par-3 Contest with Gary Player and Nicklaus and would seem to be a logical choice to either join them as an honorary starter or replace them when the time comes. For now, Watson is thinking more about what he’s leaving behind rather than what he has to look forward to. “I’ll miss being in the hunt, being inside the arena, being down on the floor, being on the field,” he said. “I’ll miss that.”

We’ll miss that, too.


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