Watson's passion still burns as memories flow at Harding

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Tom Watson's history with TPC Harding Park goes back more than 40 years, to his Stanford days.
November 05, 2010
Art Spander, Special to PGATOUR.COM

SAN FRANCISCO -- The man waiting for Tom Watson in the clubhouse at TPC Harding Park was a decent golfer once. Also more than a decent baseball player.


"Hey,'' an official told Watson, "Willie Mays is in there. Wants to shake your hand.''

Watson could only shake his head. Sure this was Mays' town, and he was one of the former stars who took part in the San Francisco Giants victory parade on Wednesday, riding in a vintage car, appropriate for a vintage ballplayer, a 79-year-old Hall of Famer.

And sure, Watson made his own reputation in Northern California, even if he grew up and resides in the Kansas City area, attending Stanford, beginning his pro career at Silverado in Napa, almost winning the 1987 U.S. Open at Olympic Club -- across the road from Harding -- and winning the 1992 Open at Pebble Beach.

But Willie Mays? What a fine way to end a round Friday in the Charles Schwab Cup Championship, even if the round, his second consecutive 1-over par 72, was less than Watson had wished.

Mays had played Harding over the years. Indeed, Watson also had played Harding -- 42 years ago in the San Francisco City Amateur when Tom was a freshman at Stanford. That was 1968, and Mays still was in centerfield for the Giants, battling the infamous winds at Candlestick Park as well as the opposing pitchers.

Watson was 18 then. Now he is 61 along with Tom Kite (61 next month), who is having a better tournament -- a much better tournament. Kite -- tied for second at 134 with Tom Lehman, one shot behind leader John Cook -- is the other of the two players in the 30-player elite field 60 or older.

Kite is a month from his 61st birthday. A day earlier, taking note of the passage of time, he had pointed out everyone on the Champions Tour understands his "days are numbered,'' that once a golfer reaches his late 50s, consistency diminishes.

"And,'' said Kite, "you're kind of hoping for one good week, then a couple of OK weeks, and then another good week ... I mean when you're not playing well, yeah, you say, 'Golly, am I done? Am I finished?'''

For both Toms, Kite especially, since he is 8-under par for 36 holes, and even Watson, who began driving the ball well in the second round, the response would be a negative.

"I still enjoy competing,'' said Watson. "I still get angry, upset, when I don't do well and miss shots. The anger still is there. I have to say I still have the passion for it.''

Also the game for it. He tied for 18th in the Masters. He tied for 29th in the U.S. Open at Pebble. That would be impressive for anyone of any age. For a 61-year-old it is verification the talent hasn't been lost.

Watson was the Missouri Amateur Champ when he came west to Stanford, which his father, Ray, and brother, Ridge, also attended. It was the fall of '67, and America, the Vietnam War exploding, student protests expanding, was in flux -- maybe in no location more so than San Francisco, 30 miles or so from Stanford.

But when Watson came to The City in the winter of 1968 it was to watch the Lucky International, a PGA TOUR event then held at Harding and a few weeks later to enter the San Francisco Amateur.

"I followed Billy Casper,'' Watson said, referring to the eventual winner of the Lucky. "I was amazed how easily he hit the ball from the sloppy fairways. He was pin high on every hole. People don't realize how good a player he really was.''

Maybe, because when Casper was at his best, winning the 1959 U.S. Open, winning the 1966 U.S. Open -- at Olympic -- winning the 1970 Masters, there was no Golf Channel or ESPN or the sort of worldwide coverage the sport eventually would demand.

We do realize how good a player Tom Watson was. And is. The astounding run, at age 59, in last year's British Open, only to lose in a playoff to Stewart Cink, remains fixed in the mind's eye. That opening round of 6-under 66 in the Masters this year was headline stuff.

And yet one of the more enduring memories of Watson had less to do with ability than integrity. It was the match-play segment of that '68 City Amateur, and Tom was playing the 10th hole, which although Harding has been restored and altered wasn't that much different from the 10th hole he played Friday.

Tom hit his tee shot on the par-5 onto the fairway and what everyone presumed was his second short of the green. But Watson announced the ball had moved when he addressed it, was in fact lying three, not two. He would lose the hole.

"Golfers are supposed to do that,'' said Watson 42 years later. "That's the way the game is played.''

Then and now, the way Tom Watson played is enough to get a handshake from Willie Mays. And symbolically all who love golf.