Tom Watson has played 132 tournament rounds at Augusta National Golf Club. So far, he’s 91-over par.
Yet when Watson tees it up for his 43rd and final time at the year’s first major starting Thursday, it will mark the end of a career in the Masters that stretches back to when Richard Nixon was president and George Archer was the defending champion.
Watson was an amateur from Stanford University in 1970 when he missed the cut at The Masters by three strokes after shooting rounds of 77 and 76. He didn’t make the field again until he was a professional in 1975, but he’s been in the tournament every year since.
Now, as Jordan Spieth prepares to defend his title and Barack Obama finishes the last year of his presidency, Watson is 66-years old, a two-time winner of the green jacket that symbolizes The Masters tournament.
Last year at the British Open, he announced 2016 would mark his final competitive rounds on the course that Bobby Jones built.
“Over the years, I’ve made my share of wrong decisions, but do I have regrets? The only regret I have is that it’s the end,” Watson said at St. Andrews. “It’s 40 years. It’s the end. And I regret I don’t have the tools in the toolbox to be able to continue on.”
While Watson plans to continue his playing career on the Champions Tour, he told the Golf Channel’s Brian Adams that despite being the oldest pro ever to break par at The Masters when he opened with a 71 last year, he no longer has the length to be competitive at Augusta National.
“I’m too short now. I can’t hit the ball far enough to reasonably compete on the golf course. The golf course is just too long.”
When he was in the prime of his career, Augusta National measured around 7,000 yards. Now the course has been lengthened and this year will play at 7,435 yards.
“I carry the ball now about 250 in the air off the tee,” the eight-time Major winner told Adams. “At Augusta, you have some uphill tee shots that if you can carry the ball 270 or more, you can now hit the proper shot into the greens, a lofted shot. That puts me really out of the running.”
When he tees it up Thursday, it will be the World Golf Hall of Fame member’s 42nd year in a row playing in The Masters.
His first green jacket came in 1977 when he finished at 12-under par shooting a final round 67. Watson came to the 17th hole that Sunday tied with Jack Nicklaus at 11-under. After catching the back of the green with his approach shot, Watson rolled in a 20-foot downhill birdie putt that moved him one stroke ahead of Nicklaus, who then bogeyed 18 to finish two back.
Watson won The Masters for a second time in 1981 again beating Nicklaus (and Johnny Miller) by two shots as he finished at 8-under par, this two years after a narrow loss to Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
In his 42 year career at Augusta National, Watson finished as runner-up three times and was in the top-10 in 13 of the 15 years between 1977 and 1991. His best round was a 67 in 2010; his worst round an 83 in 2009. Watson’s career winnings at The Masters total $942,850. (Spieth collected $1.8 million for his win in 2015.)
As recently as 2010 Watson finished in the top 20. Since then however, he’s failed each year to make the cut. (In all, he’s qualified for weekend play 24 times with 18 missed cuts.)
“It’s a little bit like death,” the winner of 71 professional events (including 39 PGA Tour wins) told Augusta.com recently. “The finality of the end is here. But what tempers that very much are the memories and the people I’ve met along the way.”
Watson will always be welcomed back to Augusta National for the Champions Dinner, the Par-3 Tournament and, perhaps, a future role as a ceremonial starter hitting the tee shot that begins the tournament on Thursday morning.
For now though, at least for two more tournament rounds, Watson will enjoy being inside the ropes.
“It’s time,” he told the Golf Channel’s Adams. “We’re gonna bring a lot of people down to watch my last Masters, my family and friends, and so I’m looking forward to that.”
To millions of fans around the world, Tom Watson’s scores at Augusta National won’t matter this year; even at 91 over par, his name is already secured on the leaderboard of Masters history.