Tom Watson says he can no longer compete at Augusta, but you can bet he doesn't believe it

Tom Watson, 2012 Masters
Al Tielemans/SI
Tom Watson kept himself in the tournament by hitting 23 of 28 fairways, but he averaged only 262 yards off the tee. Still, he plays golf to be competitive.

Tom Watson does not leave much room in his life for nostalgia. See, nostalgia means looking backward, and Watson simply won't face that direction. For instance, here's Watson's succinct summation of his remarkable and inspirational runner-up finish at the 2009 British Open when he was 59 years old: "I lost."

And here's how, more often that not, he will describe the legendary chip at Pebble Beach that led him to victory at the 1982 U.S. Open: "That was cool."

And here's his gushing account of the classic duel with Jack Nicklaus at the 1977 British Open at Turnberry: "Very special."

That's all. Watson might be the greatest old golfer in the sport's history. And he is that because, even though he turns 63 this year, even though he was the oldest golfer competing at the Masters by three years, even though he will say again and again that his time has passed, well, he doesn't really believe it. He can't believe it. He's Tom Watson. This is Augusta National. And he really does believe that he still has one more Masters victory left in him.

You could call that delusional, and maybe that's the right word. Watson shot seven over par in his two days at the Masters this year and missed the cut for the ninth time in his last 10 tries. He has only broken par once in those 10 Masters, and he will readily admit that his game does not stand up to the golf course anymore. He sees his greatest rival, Jack Nicklaus, acting now as one of the ceremonial starters, meaning he hits one shot and calls it a week. Watson knows that many of his former rivals—Johnny Miller, Lee Trevino and others—are not around. He is not unaware of his age and limitations.

"The golf course is too long for me," he said in 2006.

"The course is just too long for me," he said in 2008.

"It hasn't really changed—the course is still too long for me," he said this year.

But he keeps coming back, year after year. And that says everything. Watson, of course, has an invitation to the Masters in perpetuity because of his two Masters victories (in 1977 and '81). But, he and I have known each other for a long time, and I can tell you, though he loves golf history, he would not come back and play for ceremonial reasons. He would not come back and play (as perhaps some other former champions do) for the opportunity to hit a few familiar shots, wave to the crowd, walk up 18 to the cheers one more time. As mentioned, nostalgia does not drive Tom Watson.

So why come back? Well, I have a hunch. I think it's because he still believes in his heart that it will all come together one more time. Of course, he won't say that.

"Was today's round fun?" I asked him on Thursday.

"You know me well enough to know it's no fun for me to come here and shoot 77," he said.

"So you came here expecting to play well?"

"No, I can't play this course at this length," he said.

"So do you enjoy coming and experiencing the Masters?"

"It's no fun for me to come here and shoot 77," he said again.

Watson is a difficult man to pin down. But it seems that he simply believes he can beat age by ignoring it. He knows that Augusta National has changed over the last few years, that 14 of the holes have been lengthened. Trees have been added. Rough—called the second cut in the more civil language of Augusta National—has been added. Watson knows that he can't beat the younger and stronger players.

At the same time, he doesn't know that at all. This is why he was able to come so close to winning the British Open at Turnberry as he approached age 60. And Augusta National can make an old golfer believe even more. No, it's not the same golf course on which Jack Nicklaus won long after everyone had given up on him. But it's still the same overall place. The little 12th hole still makes the golfers' knees shake. The par-5 13th and 15th holes still lead to eagles and disasters. The fairways are still wide, the greens lightning fast, the members still wear green jackets and the women in the gallery still wear bonnets, and the roars that signify great shots still rattle the pines.

"I don't like playing golf for fun," Watson told me once. "Getting four guys together and going out on a sunny day and playing a round of golf. I play for the competition. I need for every shot to matter. I play to be in contention."

Reasonable minds would say that he never will be in contention again at Augusta. Heck, Watson says that. But then he smiles that famous Watson smile that suggests maybe he knows a little something you don't know.

"I have to hit perfect shots to play well on this course," he says.

"Can you hit those shots?"

He looked surprised by that question. "Yeah," he said. "Of course. Why do you think I'm here?"

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