One measure of how cruel a game golf can be is that the shortest stroke sometimes becomes the most difficult to make. The irony is not wasted on Tom Watson.
“I had opportunities,” he said Friday. “I left a few of them out there.”
This is the PG-rated version. In the R version, every time Watson settled over a putt of the length he could make half the time with the side of his shoe, you wanted to avert your eyes. Because what he left on the greens of the Augusta National this Friday afternoon were not just “opportunities.”
A more complete inventory would have to include bits and pieces of his heart, his confidence, his peace of mind and, almost certainly, his chance of winning another Masters.
Smarts and guts and luck are all part of the mix necessary to win a major championship. But the finishing blows, the short putts that seal them, don’t come early enough to save some careers and often enough to sustain some others in the manner to which they become accustomed.
The early part was no problem for Watson. He won two Masters among his eight major titles in the first dozen years of a brilliant career. Sustaining that kind of excellence, though, has been another matter. A dozen years have lapsed since he last won a major, the 1983 British Open, and nearly eight years since Watson won anything on the PGA Tour.
Making it all the more cruel is that the smarts, guts, and even luck to some degree, have been constants. Watson is as fine a striker of the ball as ever, maybe better, and certainly wiser. But he can’t make a 3-footer with something on the line to save his life.
Someone reminded Watson at the conclusion of Friday’s round - a 2-under-par 70 that left him at 143, eight strokes off the lead - that he had just made a record 21st consecutive cut at the Masters. At the moment, that seemed like small consolation.
“I’m here to win,” he shot back, “not to make cuts.”
By the time he had reached No. 18, with at least three, and possibly four, strokes lost by a balky putter, Watson stood by himself on the left side of tee box and grimly practiced his stroke. He promptly dumped his drive into a bunker and just as promptly, walked into the bunker and without a practice swing, exploded back onto the fairway. Almost as quickly, he walked to his ball and punched a wedge toward the 18th green.
Thinking her husband would need one more par to safely make the cut, Linda Watson began calling after the shot. “Stop!” she yelled from a vantage point on the left side of the fairway . “Stop on that side of the pin.”
Someone asked Linda whether Tom was edgy being so close to the cut.
“Believe me,” she said, sounding like him. “It’s not the number of cuts. It’s the number of green jackets.”