James Lawton: Watson's shot from the pines shows Tiger a way out of the woods
"Maybe" said Nicklaus, "I'll never win again, but it will not be because I stopped working at this game"
Of all the tributes landing on the tousled head of Bubba Watson yesterday, there was no doubt about the most poignant. It came from Tiger Woods, who tweeted, "Fantastic creativity."
If Bubba had a harder head, and heart, he might have replied, "It was elementary, Dear Tiger."
But then, if the new Masters champion, just three years younger than Woods and so emotional that it was observed in the moment of his astonishing victory over Louis Oosthuizen and the first flood of inevitable tears, "he is the kind of guy who cries when his eggs are cooked right," may never get within an albatross drive of the record of the man who dominated utterly a whole generation of golfers, he surely has one potent lesson to teach.
Most pertinently, maybe, is a reminder to the Tiger, if it isn't too late, of the basis of his own first overwhelming impact – and the launching of a now imperilled drive to sweep past the all-time mark of 18 major titles by Jack Nicklaus and prove, beyond all doubt, creative or statistical, that he is indeed the greatest golfer the world will ever know.
The message, moving and indelible, was sent by Watson when he fashioned his play-off victory over the admirable Oosthuizen with a shot out of the pines beside the 10th fairway that couldn't have been taught by an army of gurus, including the Tiger's latest, the 37-year-old Canadian Sean Foley, who also doubles as a hip-hop DJ.
Woods, who finished 15 shots behind Watson and Oosthuizen, is of course currently involved in the third major overhaul of a swing which once sent terror into the heart of every golf architect in the world. Bubba, on the other hand, is luxuriating in the power of his own originality, one which persuaded him many years ago back in the Florida panhandle that, "if I have a swing, I have a shot".
Historically, Watson's rampant spontaneity may not last the course. He may get diverted, he may become immersed in his other great impulses, including a love of family and urge to do good beyond the boundaries of a golf course.
Certainly, emotional equilibrium and a degree of pragmatism are unlikely to ever nestle easily in his golf bag. His long-suffering caddie once threatened to walk away because he decided that being with Bubba, for all the love and affection, was just too much of a daily journey into the unknown. However, if Watson's tomorrow is a largely uncharted map, no golfer alive can afford to dismiss his ability to seize a day as profoundly as he did here on Sunday.
For the Tiger that is the lesson, if he isn't too far gone in the self-absorption which rarely seemed so dark as in these last few days, when he tossed away his club so frequently it might have been not the instrument of a unique talent but a cattle prod.
Here there have been any number of grim comparisons between the latest wearer of the Green Jacket and the man who claimed his first of four 15 years ago, at the age of 21, not as one of the great prizes but something he had been modelling for ever since, as a toddler, he became a local TV star in southern California with his stunningly precocious golf tricks.
Ironically enough, both are the sons of strong-minded military men, and both were convulsed by their deaths. But if the Tiger seems to yearn for the certainties provided by such a background, if he still hankers for someone to underpin his confidence and even his technique, Bubba has created his own world. It may not be a place too many would inhabit comfortably but there have been times here when those who admire Woods most have wished fervently that their hero could find at least a small piece of it.
One image lingers in the mind more powerfully than any of the Tiger's eruptions – and even the bewildered look that came to his face on the third day, when it became so painfully apparent that he was powerless to intrude into the serious action at the top of the leaderboard.
The picture is of Tiger being instructed in some detail by Foley on the practice range. The coach is speaking forcefully. The student, whose ownership of 14 major titles at this moment takes us to the very edge of credulity, listens to his orders attentively – and then goes out on to the course as though his eyes are wrapped in a blindfold.
Afterwards he agreed that he had produced the backswing of his former coach, and now ferocious critic, Hank Haney, and a downswing of more recent vintage. As was pointed out, there was nothing fundamentally wrong with either movement but, unfortunately, they simply didn't go together.
The conclusion was unavoidable. A once beautifully pure talent, filled with both power and imagination, was being reduced to dust by warring theories.
That impression had to be reinforced by the unfettered process of Bubba-think as he stood on a carpet of pine shavings and made the move that won the 76th Masters and finally broke the wonderfully dogged Oosthuizen. It was the product not of a coaching manual but a man's nature.
Hale Irwin, a US Open champion, once sneered that Seve Ballesteros tended to win his titles from various car parks. He is not on the record – yet – on the success of golf's latest free spirit, but it is reasonable to expect something less than a eulogy. But what would the Tiger give now for such freedom of action – and innate self-confidence?
If such elements are to be recreated in his game it is impossible to believe that they will spring from the insights of even the most intuitive coach. Of course, such men have important roles to play, and not least in the area of psychology, but their job, surely, is to identify the onset of technical problems not the relaunching of major talent. Three attempts at major restructuring of a swing which once reduced the opposition to rubble is not maintenance. It is catering to self-destruction, a phobic embrace of sure-fire futility.
Here the memory of a collision with Nicklaus, the man who many now believe is secure on his peak of achievement, is particularly vivid. It was on the practice range of the course he built in Dublin, Ohio. He was approaching 40 and weighed down by the possibility that the best of his days were over and that a player of the quality and imagination of Tom Watson was well on the way to usurping his glory.
He worked deep into the dusk, occasionally muttering mild oaths in his reedy voice, and once he confided, "How is it I can hit shots as good as this and still not win a tournament?" But he worked on quite relentlessly as the fireflies made their tracery and when he finally put away his clubs he said, "Maybe I'll never win again, but it will not be because I stopped working at this game – or [started] believing that I cannot find a solution."
There wasn't a guru in sight, which is maybe something for the Tiger to consider when we remember that Nicklaus had three more major titles to win, including his last Masters seven years later, which is to say at 10 years older than his only challenger is today.
Now that Bubba Watson has occupied, however briefly it proves, golf's highest ground, he may just be touched by the kind of pressures and doubts which left the Tiger so far removed from that moment of triumphant brilliance on Sunday evening. However, it will be at no cost to the meaning of an unforgettable victory, which said you cannot win if you do not trust yourself. Yes, dear Watson, it is quite elementary.
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