Masters 2015: Tom Watson keeps his game elementary and proves a point to Phil Mickelson

The man who captained the United States to Ryder Cup defeat at Gleneagles last September showed he still knows how to play the game

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The Independent Online

One of the great traditions at Augusta National is that the old champions get to come back year after year to play in the main event so long as they can get themselves through at least 18 holes without the aid of a golf cart or Zimmer frame. Neither is allowed at the Masters. Also banned are guns and knives and running.

So it was that the holy trinity of Arnold Palmer (aged 85), Jack Nicklaus (75) and Gary Player (79) waddled to the first tee shortly after the dawn chorus to hit the ceremonial first drives. Plink, plink, fizz went their drives before they headed back to the clubhouse for more coffee, bacon baps and a snooze.

Tom Watson will one day take his place in this much-loved ritual but there is still some fight left in the 65-year-old. Still enough puff in his lungs to take on the challenge of a modern-day Masters. His victories in 1977 and 1981 came from an era when woods really were made of wood and fitness routines involved the lifting of post-round pints.

Watson received a standing ovation as he walked up to the 18th green before signing for a first round one-under-par 71. A terrific performance considering he has only made the weekend cut once in the last 12 years. He doffed his cap to the crowd and grinned his way through his adoring fans up the hill back to the clubhouse.


It was all such a contrast to how he left golf’s last great arena after captaining the United States to another Ryder Cup defeat at Gleneagles last September. The knives were out for him in Scotland, where he wasn’t even stabbed in the back by Phil Mickelson. It was a full-frontal assault and it hurt this proud champion. So maybe he had a point to prove among three-times Green Jacket champion Mickelson and the rest of his losing Ryder Cup team. He may not be thought a good captain but he sure showed them he still knows how to play this old game of ball and stick.

“Perfect conditions. No wind. Greens were very soft. The golf course was there for the taking,” Watson said. “My game is pretty good.”

Watson revealed the secret to surviving this test and his age. “Well, old age and treachery,” he said. “I’ve played the golf course enough times to know where I’m supposed to hit it and where I’m not supposed to hit it. I struggled the last few years trying to hit shots like I used to, when I knew that I had to hit my best shot, and the ego gets involved.

“My ego got involved too much the last few years,” he said. “I want to make the cut. I haven’t done that for a few years. It’s fun to be able to at least be in red figures at Augusta National. At my age, it’s a minor miracle.”

So how is his relationship with Mickelson these days? “We just said hello and that was it.”

The outgoing US Ryder Cup captain was refusing to go quietly into the Augusta night but was rather raging against the passing of time. He equalled the score of his big-hitting partner Gary Woodland and outscored Canadian amateur Corey Conners by nine shots. Proof that brains are as good as brawn and knowledge is power.

But 56-year-old Larry Mize, the 1987 champion who chipped in at the 11th to break Greg Norman’s heart in a play-off, was showing his age with a six-over-par 78.

Victorious Ryder Cup captain Jose-Maria Olazabal was the last European to win the Masters back in 1999. The best the 49-year-old could muster was a seven-over-par 79. They respect their former champions here, but the course is no respecter of age. All of which makes Watson’s score so impressive.

The incoming European Ryder Cup captain, Darren Clarke, has one year left on his five-year invitation to the Masters for winning the 2011 Open Championship. The 46-year-old Northern Irishman is unrecognisable from those days, having been redesigned and chiselled as golf’s George Clooney with his new slimline physique and silver-fox beard. His two-over-par 74 will not be made into a movie but Clarke’s life now is more about writing the script for next year’s Ryder Cup in Minnesota than fitting his new athletic frame into a Green Jacket.

Sheffield’s 27-year-old Danny Willett may well fight his way into Clarke’s team if he continues his rise up the world rankings. The son of a preacher man matched Watson’s one-under-par 71 on his Masters debut in the company of Mize. That’s the beauty of the Masters. It’s a place where the old and the new collide on a legend’s playing field.