It took a three-month dry spell and a two-stroke Masters tournament victory to make us appreciate how awesome a golfer Tom Watson has become. He played almost superhumanly the past four seasons, winning more than 20 tournaments including one previous Masters and two British Opens, averaging only 70 strokes per round, and earning upward of $2 million. He was named Player of The Year all four years.
Perhaps never before did a player dominate a game for so long, week in and week out. Yet Watson received less credit than he deserved, in part because Jack Nicklaus made a glorious comeback last season to capture the US Open and PGA, his 18th and 19th major championships.
When Watson failed to win in the first three months of the 1981 tour, his surprising lack of success called attention by contrast to the enormity of his achievements since 1977, with close followers of the sport at least.
And Sunday he held off Nicklaus and his other leading challengers to take his second Masters and reestablish himself as the game's premier player. End of slump.
"It's better the second time around," said the 31-year-old Watson, nattily turned out in a green winner's jacket. "The first time I won, the jacket must have been six sizes too big. This one is a perfect fit."
The key to this victory, he said, was that he never put two bad shots together in the final round. He kept the pressure on the rest of the field to make up strokes, and no one could make a strong run at him.
A salient example was the par five 13th hole, where he dunked his second shot into the water, then chipped the ball across a grassed-over bridge to within a few feet of the hole, from where he saved par.
Watson's problem all year had been occasional wildness with the driver, usually caused by swinging too hard.
"Augusta National is a course that opens up for the driver," he said. "That helped. Also I've been working to slow down my swing. One mental image I use is to think of the swing as a pendulum action, with a pause at the top. I recommend that to weekend golfers who are prone to swing too fast."
Watson's winning score, worth $60,000, was an eight-under-par 280. Nicklaus and Johnny Miller, whose 68 was one of the two low rounds the last day, tied for second at 282, followed by surprising young Australian Greg Norman at 283. The other main surprise was defending champion Severiano Ballesteros of Spain, who missed the cut.
Said Nicklaus, who led by four strokes after two rounds and went into the closing 18 trailing by one: "Tom protected his lead all day and was very tough down the stretch. He got himself in trouble at 13 but got out of it with a par. At 15, he saw me birdie 16 and knew he had to make his birdie putt and he did. At 17 he made par from out of the bunker. He didn't let it slip away. He was solid when he had to be to take advantage of what I gave him, and that's how you win."
Watson's lovely, long lag putt on 15 set up that vital birdie, and he said he had practiced the putt prior to the tournament, expecting that he might face it later.
"It was a 40-footer," he said, "and I hit it like an eight-footer, the greens were so fast. After that birdie I felt I could win by parring in, or at worst wind up in a playoff." Par in he did.
The speed of the new greens, converted from Bermuda to bent grass this year, was a favorite conversation piece all week. They were faster than in recent years, which was the intent, but they were not terribly consistent in speed from one to the next, and that kept even great putters like Watson and Nicklaus guessing.
Said Nicklaus, "The scores didn't get lower the last two days because the greens got faster. You had to be very careful you didn't knock a 10-foot putt off the green in a lot of cases. The pin placements were as tough as ever, and I think the Masters people might have to be more careful with them if the greens get any faster. We had four perfect days of weather, so you know the greens and pin positions had a great deal to do with the scoring."
Both Nicklaus and Watson were disappointed that they weren't paired for the fourth round. The Masters, unlike all other important tournaments in the world, pairs the first and third players in a twosome, then the second and fourth, and so on down the line.
Nicklaus was among those surprised to learn of the Masters system for the first time. "You have to be kidding," he said when he heard that he and Watson, the two best players in the world today, would not be paired Sunday.
Both he and Watson had to be harking back to the last two rounds of the British Open at Turnberry in 1977, the year Watson won his first Masters. There they were paired together and produced probably the most exciting golf in history. Nicklaus shot 65-66 and lost by a stroke to Watson who shot 65-65.
After Sunday's round, Nicklaus said, "The pairing made no difference the way I played. I like to play the man I'm trying to catch, but my playing partner, John Mahaffey, was ahead of me for much of the round."
Watson was looking forward almost immediately to the next major championship, the US Open at Merion (Pa.) in June. "I've never won the Open, I want it very badly," he said. "It's my immediate goal" -- after, he added quickly, an enthusiastic victory party.