This was early Thursday afternoon, after Tom Watson had become the oldest man in Masters history to shoot under par, after he had stirred up some magic with a chip-in birdie at No. 10, after he had walked off the 18th green with a line of sweat forming on his brow.
Watson, 65, stood underneath a patch of trees in front of the clubhouse at Augusta National Golf Club. He had shot 1-under 71, which was his best round here in five years. He had recorded four birdies and three bogeys. And now here he was, Kansas City’s ageless golf wonder, standing one solid round away from being the oldest player to make the cut at the Masters.
“At my age,” Watson said. “It’s a minor miracle.”
One moment later, a reporter asked Watson about Gary Woodland, the Topeka native and KU graduate who had spent the day in his group. Woodland is 30 years old, athletic and powerful, and one of the longest hitters on the PGA Tour. In recent years, Watson and Woodland have gotten to know each other from practice rounds on tour and shared sponsorships. More than anyone, Watson knows that Woodland is the kind of powerful player who is built to handle Augusta National. But on this day, Woodland had shot 71. The same score as Watson.
“My son is older than he is,” Watson said.
Here is where we must recognize that you can’t get away from Watson’s age. It’s impossible. The oldest man to make the cut at Augusta National is Gary Player, who was age 62 in 1998. Watson, who will turn 66 in September, is on pace to eviscerate that record. On Thursday, Watson finished the day tied with such players as defending champion Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley and Woodland — and ahead of former champion Adam Scott. None of these men were even born when Watson won the first of his two green jackets at the 1977 Masters.
“It’s awesome,” Woodland said. “His swing looks the same now as it did when I was growing up watching him.”
Woodland, who is playing his fourth Masters, was thrilled when the groups were announced earlier this week. He had grown up in Topeka, in the shadow of Watson’s legend. When Woodland signed one of his first sponsorship deals, with Adams Golf, it was Watson who called him to say “Welcome to the family.” But the two had never played a professional round together, and Woodland was excited for the opportunity.
“Growing up in Kansas,” Woodland said, “he’s the king back home.”
And yet, Gary Woodland wasn’t even the most excited Woodland family member at Augusta National. That would be Dan Woodland, Gary’s father, who once saw a young Tom Watson play an exhibition with Jack Nicklaus at the Topeka Country Club.
“My ideal pairing,” Dan Woodland said, smiling as he stood outside the ropes on the 18th hole. “I’ve been watching Tommy my whole life.”
Inside the ropes, the feeling was mutual. Watson opened the day with a 36 on the front nine, recording birdies at No. 2 and No. 8. Sitting at even par at the Par-4 10th, Watson found himself in a green-side bunker. He wanted to save par, to keep the momentum going. Instead, he holed out.
“Got lucky,” Watson said. “I landed about 6 feet short and then it slam-dunked into (the hole) for birdie rather than rolling by about 10 feet.”
While Watson was turning back time, Woodland turned in a workmanlike round, finishing 1-under despite some shaky ball-striking. Woodland also lipped out a 5-foot par putt at No. 18.
“I didn’t play well today,” said Woodland, who shed 20 pounds in the last year to improve his conditioning. “So to shoot under par and not play well, it’s pretty solid. It’s one of the worst ball-striking rounds I’ve had in a long time, which is frustrating.”
Watson, meanwhile, would add a birdie at the Par-3 16th hole to get to 2-under before recording a bogey at the 17th. He finished the day by draining a par putt at No. 18. And now might be a good time to mention that Watson spent the day burying clutch putts with a putter he purchased at a local Dick’s Sporting Goods a few weeks back. When Watson entered the store and searched for the putter, he wasn’t noticed. He simply picked it out and headed to the register.
“It’s fun to be able to at least be in red figures at Augusta National,” Watson said.
It had been four Masters appearances since he last made the cut, and Watson has been felled by an unforgiving course that can be too long for his sexagenarian game. On Thursday, in his 42nd Masters, he made do with guile, experience and a retail putter.
“I’ve played this golf course enough to know where I’m supposed to hit it (and) where I’m not supposed to hit it,” Watson said. “I’ve struggled the last few years, trying to hit shots like I used to, when I knew I had to hit my best shot. Your ego gets involved, and my ego got involved too much the last few years. Today I play within myself.”
So what’s next? A 65-year-old has never stuck around for the weekend at the Masters, so there is no precedent here. Nobody expects Watson to stay within striking distance of the leaders for the rest of the weekend. But can he replicate the magic for one more day? Watson doesn’t see why not. When it comes to golf, age and Tom Watson, there really is no such thing as a miracle.
“I’m not fooling myself too much,” Watson said. “It was a good round. I can play better, but I made some good swings.”