AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tom Watson didn’t think eight major championships, including two green jackets, would be enough to join the company of Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus on the first tee at Augusta National.
Even at 72, more than a half-century after he made his way down Magnolia Lane for the first time as an amateur, Watson remains somewhat in awe of the legends he spent decades chasing.
“I look at these old goats right here, I can’t carry their shoes,” Watson said Thursday morning, shortly after joining Player and Nicklaus as an honorary starter at the Masters for the first time. “I don’t kind of belong in the same realm as these two players here.”
Club chairman Fred Ridley disagreed. The invitation he extended to Watson to become the 11th honorary starter since the tradition began in 1962 included the provision that the 72-year-old Watson could hit away as long as he liked.
“Wow,” Watson said. “That meant a great deal to me.”
Even if it meant entering another phase of his golfing life. It’s a phase Watson, who won at Augusta in 1977 and again in 1981 and nearly pulled off a stunner in the 2009 British Open in Turnberry at age 58 before ultimately losing to Stewart Cink in a playoff, long ago came to terms with.
“I guess it’s a culmination of kind of the process,” he said. “I had a pretty good career. Not like (Player and Nicklaus), but I had a pretty good career. Just kind of the culmination of it.”
Watson took over the honor for Lee Elder, the first Black player at the Masters who died last fall. Watson, with 72 next to his name on the standard-bearer at the first tee, took a moment before teeing off and considered how things have come full circle.
He’d made it a point from the time he made his Masters debut as a 20-year-old amateur in 1970 to find his way to the first tee box early Thursday morning through the years to catch the men who helped define the sport. Freddy McLeod and Jock Hutchison. Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. Gene Sarazen and Arnold Palmer. Player and Nicklaus. And now, Watson.
“I’m very humbled to be a part of it,” Watson said.
Well, up to a point anyway. Watson couldn’t help but have a little fun when he, Player and Nicklaus were asked who put together the longest drive.
“Oh, come on,” said Watson, who is considerably younger than the 82-year-old Nicklaus and the 86-year-old Player.
While Nicklaus admitted he was the shortest, by his estimate “Gary and Tom were pretty close probably.”
A guesstimate that didn’t sit well with Nicklaus’ rival turned friend.
“Oh, I got (Player) by 50 (yards)!” Watson said with a laugh.