RIDGEDALE, Mo. — As if Branson didn’t have enough stars …
This week, the city dubbed as the Entertainment Capital of the World will be flooded by many of golf’s biggest stars for the Legends of Golf Tournament that starts Friday.
These stars might be past their prime, but they certainly remain stars — no one would dispute that guys like Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson still have star power.
Heard of them?
Watson is Missouri’s favorite golfing son and, at age 65, is still going strong. Not just on the Champions Tour — this week’s stop for Watson and about 80 other professionals at the Top of the Rock and Buffalo Ridge, two courses a few minutes south of Branson — but on the regular PGA Tour, as well.
Watson made the cut at last week’s Heritage Classic at Harbour Town Golf Club, sinking a four-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole Friday to make the cut “on the number” as they say on Tour. By playing the weekend, he became the second-oldest player in PGA Tour history to make a cut, second only to Sam Snead who was 67 would he made the cut at the Westchester Classic in 1979.
“I’ve played these golf courses enough, like Harbour Town, that I know where to hit it and where not to hit it,” Watson says during a chat with Missouri Golf Post on Tuesday. “I know what my capabilities are now and I know what my limitations are.
“I’m not that competitive any more, I don’t hit the golf ball far enough to be competitive. Making the cut is okay, that’s kind of what I’m there to do, prove I can go four rounds with the kids.”
Playing with the “kids” has certainly been an adjustment for Watson, an eight-time major champion who still flashes that boyish, effervescent Huck Finn grin.
“The ego gets involved as far as the distance goes,” says Watson, who still lives in Kansas City. “I can’t get out there and think I’m going to hit an 8-iron 160 yards anymore, it’s going to go 140 yards.
“I play with youngsters who hit the ball 50 yards in the air farther than I can. I remember when I was the longest out here, or one of the longest. But those days are long past. I understand my role and position right now, but I still have the competitive desire to try and negotiate these golf courses and play with the youngsters.”
Watson’s doing just fine, thanks, especially at age 65. The secret to his longevity? Mom and dad.
“They gave me good genes, first and foremost,” Watson says. “Second, I’ve been blessed with a long swing that’s served me well. As you get older, your swing gets shorter and quicker and you don’t have the ability to generate the club head speed.
“If I time it just right, I can still get it out there, but it’s starting to get shorter. The handwriting’s on the wall, I’m not going to be out there much longer playing against the kids.”
The week before the Heritage, Watson competed in the Masters and opened with a splendid 1-under 71, beating the likes of Tigers Woods and Rickie Fowler, and tying guys like Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson.
The hallowed grounds of Augusta were shaking with echoes of glory past.
“It was nice to break par there because I hadn’t done that at Augusta in a number of years,” Watson says. “My real goal there was to play on the weekend, which I didn’t do … I really messed it up on Friday.”
Yes, Watson stumbled to an 81 during Friday’s second round and missed the cut, but still … thanks for the memories, Tom.
Speaking of memories, Watson says he’s still frequently asked about his improbable/impossible chip-in for birdie on the 17th hole — and the 71st hole of the 1982 U.S. Open — that led to a victory over Jack Nicklaus. It’s been named the Greatest Shot in Golf History by ESPN.
“I was lucky it went in — it hit the middle of the flag stick and dropped in,” Watson says with a smile. “But the timing could not have been better. It was shot that allowed me to win the tournament that I wanted to win the most, our national Open.”
This week, Watson will team with Andy North at the Legends, which is a unique two-man, 54-hole, better-ball format, sponsored by Bass Pro Shops and Big Cedar Lodge. How unique? Top of the Rock is a nine-hole, par-3 course — the first such course EVER used in a sanctioned event by either the Champions or regular PGA tours.
“It’s a whole lot of fun and the venues are just spectacular,” Watson says. “Johnny Morris and Jack Nicklaus have done a fantastic job with this property. It’s first-class all the way.” Watson’s contribution at Top of the Rock is the practice putting green modeled after The Himalayas practice green at St. Andrews in Scotland.
Nicklaus is the course designer of Top of the Rock; Morris is the founder of Bass Pro Shops, Big Cedar Lodge and most recently, the breathtaking 462-acre spread that is Top of the Rock, which overlooks Table Rock Lake with views that make you shake your head.
The Legends is the oldest event for the 50-and-older set, long before the tour was known as the Champions Tour — and even before it was known as the Seniors Tour. The Liberty Mutual Insurance Legends of Golf started it all in 1978 and it was such a hit, it spawned the start of the Senior Tour two years later.
While Watson is certainly looking forward to competing against his peers this weekend, he couldn’t help thinking about one of his younger peers on that “other” tour.
Like Watson, Jordan Spieth is also defying his age, but in the opposite direction. At just 21, Spieth is golf’s fastest-rising star after romping to a four-shot win at the Masters. Watson saw this coming last September when Spieth was a member of the U.S. Ryder Cup team, which was captained by Watson.
“He’s a great player, he’s got fire … he obviously has a very bright future,” Watson says. “I love the way he handles himself, both on and off the golf course. He handles himself with dignity and grace, you don’t see many young men like that.
“He’s got everything going for him, the whole package. He’s real, he’s honest and he’s very likable.”
It takes one to know one, Tom.