California Dreaming

Published 12:49 am Thursday, June 17, 2010

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The last time Tom Watson was at a course where he felt this much at home, this comfortable, he almost won the British Open.

That was last year, above the water at Turnberry.

This week, he’s overlooking the Pacific at Pebble Beach for the U.S. Open. And if there’s one man who doesn’t need convincing that anything is possible at Pebble, Watson is the man.

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If his plan goes to form, his return to the course where he chipped in on No. 17 to win in 1982 will not be for ceremonial golf. Nor will it be merely for a nostalgic trip back to the spot where he hit one of the most famous shots in the game’s history.

“I am playing well,” Watson declared Wednesday.

Which should mean something, even though Watson is 60 and isn’t “supposed” to be thinking about winning these things anymore.

Last year, he was one 8-foot putt away from capping what many would’ve called the most remarkable golf story ever — a 59-year-old man winning the British against a bunch of players half his age.

“Would have been a helluva story,” Watson said, repeating his line from last year, after he missed the putt, lost the playoff to Stewart Cink and broke the hearts of pretty much everyone outside the Cink family.

Thing is, the loss didn’t stop Watson from playing well. He claims to be as comfortable on the golf course as he has been in decades, still hitting the ball long and straight and finding answers, most of the time, for a putter that used to confound him. He was tied for second after the opening round of the Masters earlier this year, and thanks to a special exemption granted to him by the USGA, he will become the only person to play in all five U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach when he tees it up Thursday.

He will be playing with Rory McIlroy and Ryo Ishikawa, two players who could combine their ages and still be more than 20 years younger than Watson.

But Watson is redefining what a player can do at 60, even on the toughest courses against the toughest competition.

“I still feel as if I can play the golf course,” he said. “I’m out there and I’m still trying to figure it out, figuring out all these lies, these unpredictable lies around the green and the rough. And trying to figure out the new lines and where you have to hit the ball off the tee.”

Yes, Pebble Beach has changed since Watson won here in 1982, pitching that ball from a mound in the rough behind the 17th green, then watching it hit and trickle downhill into the cup for a birdie while Jack Nicklaus looked on, amazed.

But where most golf courses have gotten longer in the past 30 years, as architects try to counteract the effect of technology and stronger players, Pebble has changed more subtly. For this year’s Open, the fairways have been mowed down so they now drop off into the hazards on the oceanside holes. Bunkers have been added. Some trees have been removed, others planted.

The course’s biggest defense remains the fickle wind and weather and the small greens. Quite simply, it will not be a tournament decided solely on who can hit the ball farthest.

The question then becomes, why, exactly, would you count Watson out?

“He’ll just play it with a lot of wisdom and cunning, and also past knowledge. Forget the age,” said Johnny Miller, calling the action for NBC. “You think, ’well, he’s not a favorite’ but he could contend. I don’t know if he can do it for four rounds, but he’s a great part of the story if he can have a good first round.”

Watson acknowledged that as he has walked around Pebble this week, he has felt the push and pull between nostalgia and the desire to remain competitive — something that comes up most poignantly when he reaches the 17th green and the 18th tee.

“Everybody wants to take a picture,” he said. “It kind of reminds me of what happened, what occurred here before. It’s pretty sweet, pretty nice.”

The memories at Pebble Beach, though, extend well back from that memorable shot in 1982, when he won his sixth of eight majors, and his only U.S. Open. When he was a college kid at Stanford, and the green’s fees were $15, the starter used to let him sneak on for free. He remembers the “black-and-blue” burned-out greens from the 1972 Open that Nicklaus won, remembers playing at Bing Crosby’s old clambake with buddies from Kansas City.

He remembers the time, a few months after his 1982 victory, when he and a few pals ran out to the spot where he made the chip — at twilight and after a few bottles of wine — to see who could recreate the shot.

“Sculled it clear over the green,” he said.

Memories, of course, will get him nowhere this week.

And listening to him talk — not just the words he says, but the way he says them — it’s clear Watson is someone who thinks he might be able to go somewhere, even if time is no longer on his side.

“I don’t know, it could be a year, could be three years, could be six years,” he said when asked how long he can come to events like these and think about contending. “I hope it’s a long time because that’s what I am, I’m a golfer. Plain and simple, a golfer. That’s what I do. That’s what I am. And when I can’t do it anymore on a competitive level, it’s going to be a sad day.”