Watson returns to Pebble one last time

Thursday, February 8th 2007, 6:01 am
By: News On 6

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) _ Tom Watson has a history with Pebble Beach that spans 40 years.

He remembers playing for the first time in 1967 as a teenager. He came back when he was at Stanford, smart enough to befriend the starter and get sent out early without having to pay the $10 greens fee, not quite as much as the $425 it costs now, although Watson will tell you that it was a lot of money back then.

He teed it up 27 times in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, winning in 1978 and 1979. He has played the last three years at Pebble in the Champions Tour event. And there was that magical summer in 1982 when he chipped in for birdie from the back of the 17th hole in the final round to break Jack Nicklaus' heart and win his only U.S. Open.

``There's quite a bit of history between this area and myself,'' he said Wednesday.

And if that's not enough, Watson would recommend a trip to the first tee to look at the brass awards.

``You will see that there's 1941, a guy by the name of Ray Watson and Leonard Dodson,'' he said. ``Ray Watson happened to be my father, and he and Leonard won the pro-am division in 1941 at Rancho Santa Fe, a long time ago.

``I had a good run in this area,'' he said. ``It's nice to be back.''

Watson, 57, is back one last time at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, with no realistic chance of winning. He was on the practice range the other day next to kids old enough to be his son, hitting shots with which he is not familiar _ high and long.

Asked about his game, Watson replied, ``What's the right term ... insufficient?''

But he is back for a reason.

Watson asked tournament director Ollie Nutt last year if he could play with Michael, his 24-year-old son, completing three generations at Pebble Beach.

``Michael was out on his own, out of school, and he was established in a job, and it was time for us to play in the event,'' Watson said. ``And I know a lot of professionals have brought their sons here, and it's just the right time. I didn't want to wait too many more years.''

There was a time when Watson ruled golf. He is an eight-time major champion with 39 victories on the PGA Tour, the last of them at age 48 when he captured the Colonial. He has won eight times against the seniors, including the Senior PGA Championship, which is the one regular major that kept him from the Grand Slam.

No birdie was more memorable than a Sunday afternoon in June on the 17th hole.

In another intense duel with Nicklaus, Watson hooked a 2-iron on the par-3 framed by the Pacific Ocean into gnarly grass behind the green, a fast chip that would be difficult to get close. He knew as much walking off the tee, telling his caddie, ``That's dead,'' and whispering a prayer to the golf gods for a decent lie.

``And I looked at the lie and said, 'Whoa.' A little talk there was answered, because the ball was not just down in the real heavy stuff, at least I could do something with the ball,'' he said. ``And it came out just the way I wanted to. Came out soft, high and short, and ended up going in the hole. Broke Jack's heart.''

A few years later, he was in the lodge with some buddies eating dinner and drinking champagne, when someone came up with the idea of reliving the chip-in. It was dark. They weren't completely stable. And he skulled it across the green.

During a practice round Monday, Watson and his son reached the 17th and Michael asked him about the chip. Watson showed him the spot, then set a ball down on the green where the hole was cut that final round.

``He almost hit it three times,'' Tom Watson said of his son.

Watson isn't the only 50-and-older player in the field. Peter Jacobsen is playing the PGA Tour for the first time since hip replacement surgery, and he probably wouldn't play this circuit except for the lure of Pebble Beach.

The scenery is among the best in America. The weather is another story.

After six years of the sunshine that makes Pebble so appealing to the rest of the country _ one week after the Super Bowl, with much of the country seeking shelter from snow and cold _ the old ``Crosby'' weather might be making a comeback.

It was gray and misting on Wednesday, and that might be the best weather of the week. The chance of rain is 60 percent, although the course was dry enough that it should be able to handle any downpours.

What makes Pebble Beach so special to Jacobsen is celebrities in the field, along with corporate CEOs that he believes blends the amateur aspect of golf with entertainment value and corporate sponsorship.

``These are the kind of events that define the PGA Tour, and I want to be a part of that any time I possible can,'' he said.

The tournament is missing its defending champion, Arron Oberholser, who is recovering from a back injury that probably will keep him out until the Florida swing.

Even without Tiger Woods, who hasn't played here since 2001, the field is not lacking. Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson are among five of the top 10 players in the world rankings.

The cut is made after three rounds because of the rotation at Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and Poppy Hills, and the top 25 pro-am teams get to play the final round. Watson will allow himself the thought of being there.

``Maybe through some treachery and my old-age wisdom, I can make a few birdies at the right time, and have my son Michael made some birdies,'' he said. ``Maybe we'll make it to Sunday and see what happens.''