We treat our golf heroes like royalty, so when it comes time to say farewell, decrees are issued and the word sent forth regarding the appointed day and time when one of the legends is about to leave the court of greatness for good. The site’s 18th-hole amphitheater usually serves as the honoree’s trail of tears, as the subjects provide a rousing ovation that lasts the long walk home.
We have known since last July that next month’s Masters will be two-time winner Tom Watson’s 43rd and final appearance as a competitor. He made the announcement just prior to playing his final Open Championship, at the Old Course. Unless something historically astounding happens, it will also be the final major championship of Watson’s career.
Because former champions can play well into their twilight days, Augusta National has been the site of the final career major for more than a dozen of the game’s best major champions. Their sendoffs begin with 46-year-old tournament founder Bobby Jones’ 49th-place finish in 1948, a time when there was no 36-hole cut. All too often, however, the final farewell hasn’t gone beyond the first two rounds, ranging from missed cuts by Jimmy Demaret (age 56 in 1967), Byron Nelson (54 in 1966), Arnold Palmer (74 in 2004), Seve Ballesteros (49 in 2007), Raymond Floyd (66 in 2009) and Gary Player (73 also in 2009) and Ben Crenshaw (63 in 2015) to withdrawals for Cary Middlecoff (50 in 1971), Sam Snead (70 in 1983), Doug Ford (78 in 2001) and Billy Casper (73 in 2005). Nonwinner Walter Hagen WD’d from the 1941 Masters to end his major career at age 48.
Watson, 66, has said for several years that Augusta National is too big for him. Since finishing fourth in 1997, he has missed the cut in 16 of the last 18 Masters, including last year. But Watson doesn’t have to worry that he tested the patience of Masters officials by overstaying his time as past champion. Last year he shot 71 on Thursday, becoming the oldest player, at 65, to shoot under par in Masters history, one of several longevity records he has compiled in the majors. (A second-round 81, however, was the clincher that “it’s time to say good-bye.”) It would be fitting if he could get four rounds in and join Jones as the only golf great to finish his major career at the Masters with four rounds since Watson began his major career at Augusta in 1970.
If that does happen, it would rank with Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus for the most appropriate conclusions to a major career. At age 54, Hogan, one of the U.S. Open’s legendary players, tied for 34th at the 1967 U.S. Open. Nicklaus, who was even the greatest at saying good-bye, completed his final major at age 65 in the 2005 Open Championship at St. Andrews, posing at 18’s Swilcan Burn Bridge (above), taking in a 10-minute ovation as he came to his drive, and then holing a 15-foot birdie putt to miss the cut by two shots. A classic conclusion that everyone should seek out on YouTube when they need to feel inspired.
Other major champions in their final major include Jim Barnes (age 46, T-55, 1932 U.S. Open), Julius Boros (60, MC, 1980 PGA), James Braid (58, T-41, 1928 Open Ch.), Henry Cotton (70, MC, 1977 Open Ch.), Bobby Locke (60, MC, 1978 Open Ch.), Old Tom Morris (74, 49th, 1895 Open Ch.), Paul Runyan (69, MC, 1977 PGA), Gene Sarazen (71, MC, 1973 Open Ch.), J.H. Taylor (56, 49th, 1927 Open Ch.), Peter Thomson (54, MC, 1984 Open Ch.), Lee Trevino (60, MC, 2000 Open Ch.) and Harry Vardon (58, 47th, 1928 Open Ch.)