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Forty years after winning 1981 Masters, Tom Watson recalls accomplishing what few golfers have pulled off

AUGUSTA, Ga. — When Tom Watson won the 1977 Masters, the only bogey on Sunday was that his green jacket was too big. About six sizes too large by his estimation. In 1981, he donned a 44 long after collecting his second Masters title, fending off challenges from runners-up Johnny Miller and Jack Nicklaus.

“They got it right this time,” Watson said. “It didn’t matter. I didn’t care whether it was a 44 long or a 56 long, I didn’t care, as long as I had that green jacket on.”

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Watson had established himself as arguably the best player in the game, winner of four major championships to date, but he hadn’t won yet that season heading into the 45th Masters.

Tom Watson watches the ball in play at Augusta National during Sunday’s final round in the 1981 Masters.
The Augusta Chronicle via USA TODAY NETWORK

That week, Watson benefited from time spent with two-time Masters champion Byron Nelson, his mentor, friend and father figure, including during the Par-3 Contest. At the second hole, Watson stuck his tee shot tight, which led to this memorable exchange.

“I needled him, and I said, ‘Top that, Nelson.’ And he said, ‘There’s room inside that.’ He proceeded to hit the shot and hit the flagstick,” Watson recalled as he looked at a recently unearthed photo from the Augusta Chronicle archives of himself and Nelson walking the fairways of the nine-hole short course.

Watson also persuaded Nelson to play the back nine of the big course with him and former U.S. Open champion Andy North during a practice round, and Nelson wowed them with his ballstriking, especially at No. 14.

“He ran that 3‑wood right up that slope to about 10 feet from the hole. Andy and I were just shaking our heads. This guy is the real deal,” Watson said.

Masters Rewind: Winning the 1981 Masters was twice as nice for Tom Watson

Golfweek’s Adam Schupak chats with 1981 Masters Champion, Tom Watson, about how he calmed his nerves to win his second green jacket.

USA TODAY

It was Nelson who taught Watson how to handle major championship pressure after some Sunday failures early in his career. He noticed Watson walked too quickly and rushed his decision-making. Walking a beat slower had multiple benefits including a smoother rhythm to Watson’s swing. Nelson dispelled other morsels of wisdom, including this one that wedged into Watson’s head for all these years.

“He said, ‘I always wanted to be a little bit unsure about my golf swing or the way I was playing because that made me sharp and focused,’ ” Watson said.

A focused Watson opened with rounds of 71-68 to trail Nicklaus, who shot 65 on Friday, by four strokes, but held a one-stroke 54-hole lead at 7-under 209 after Nicklaus ballooned to 75 on Saturday.

Tom Watson is joined by Byron Nelson during the 1981 Masters Par-3 Contest at Augusta National on April 8, 1981.

Tom Watson is joined by Byron Nelson during the 1981 Masters Par-3 Contest at Augusta National on April 8, 1981.
The Augusta Chronicle via USA TODAY NETWORK

In an interesting twist, the game’s two heavyweights weren’t paired together in the final round as the Masters opted to send off the first and third-leading scorers in a twosome, then the second and fourth, and so on down the line. “You have to be kidding,” Nicklaus said when he heard that Watson would play the final round with Masters debutante Greg Norman, and he with John Mahaffey.

The other hot topic was the speed of the greens, converted from Bermuda to bent grass that year. On Thursday, Nicklaus complained that the hole locations were “hanging from cliffs and standing on knobs.” Later, he noted that if you weren’t careful you could putt off the green as Watson discovered the hard way on Sunday at the ninth green.

The speed of the greens presented new challenges for Watson at the 1981 Masters after being converted from Bermuda to bent grass.
The speed of the greens presented new challenges for Watson at the 1981 Masters after being converted from Bermuda to bent grass.
The speed of the greens presented new challenges for Watson at the 1981 Masters after being converted from Bermuda to bent grass.

“I hit the putt and I said, ‘Oh, no!’ ” Watson recounted. “So, I started walking off the putt, went to my back pocket and put on my glove because I knew that ball was going to roll off the green.”

Watson chipped close and salvaged bogey as the chase for the green jacket tightened up. Johnny Miller birdied three of the last six holes to shoot 68, tying for the lowest score of the day, and waited 90 minutes to see if his clubhouse-leading score of 6-under 282 would hold up.

“I kind of felt like I wasn’t going to be able to catch him,” said Miller, who started the final round five strokes back. “He was tough to beat with how good he was with the putter. At that point, I thought he was the best putter I’d ever seen. It was just surreal how aggressive he was.”

Watson showed his putting touch with a clutch 15-foot par putt at No. 5, and his aggressive nature at No. 12, ramming his birdie putt 8 feet past the hole before canning the comebacker.

“All I care about at 12 is don’t hit it in the water,” Watson said of Rae’s Creek that fronts the green at the par 3. “That’s the key shot of the whole tournament.”

Tom Watson reacts to his putt during the final round of the 1981 Masters.

Tom Watson reacts to his putt during the final round of the 1981 Masters.
The Augusta Chronicle via USA TODAY NETWORK

One hole later at the par 5, Watson rinsed a 4-iron on his second shot in Rae’s Creek, but pitched to 4 feet and saved par. With Miller and Nicklaus on his tail, Watson hit arguably the tournament-defining shot, lofting a 4-wood to the par-5 15th hole that stopped 40 feet from the hole. After an aggressive eagle bid, Watson lined up his 4-foot birdie putt as Nicklaus poured in a 25-foot birdie putt at 16 to climb momentarily within a stroke. The roar of the patrons failed to affect Watson, who sank the putt to stretch his lead to two.

Watson’s short game was tested one more time before he could slip into his second green jacket. Watson’s second shot at 17 caught the front bunker, the same spot from which he’d made double bogey the day before. Forty years later, he called it the most nerve-wracking moment of the week. He splashed to 4 feet for another par.

“It was slightly on the upslope,” Watson remembered. “Didn’t make a hard swing, just released it, let the ball flop out there without too much spin to it, and just kind of roll-up by the hole.”

That’s when Watson knew the green jacket would belong to him again and he could enjoy a slow victory walk to his final-round 1-under 71. At the time, Watson said of winning the Masters, “It’s better the second time.”

What made returning to the winner’s circle sweeter?

“To do it not once but twice, you feel like you have accomplished something that very few people have ever done,” Watson explained. “That’s what I was out there to do was to prove to myself that I could win under the most pressure‑filled situations and in the most important tournaments.”

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