When Tom Watson walked off the 18th green at the Augusta National Golf Club today, beaming with satisfaction over his second Masters championship, he got first a smooch on the lips and a big bear hug from his wife Linda, then a congratulatory handshake and a couple of respectful paws on the back from the Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus.
Watson was elated, his whole face glowing as brightly as his sunburned nose. Nicklaus was trying to smile, but it was difficult. It is not his nature to feel anything but disappointment with second place, the position he shared with Johnny Miller with a 72-hole total of 282, two strokes behind Watson.
Nicklaus was feeling bearish inside, he acknowledged later. In his heart of hearts, he felt he should have won his sixth Masters, after leading the tournament by four shots at midpoint Friday. But standing there with Watson at the entrance to the scorer's tent, he suppressed the urge to growl and was gracious.
There was something touching, and telling, in that private moment between two superlative golfers who loathe second place. As Nicklaus gave Watson first a perfunctory pat on the back, then another that looked more soulful, there was a sense of grudging but precious kinship.
It was as if Papa Bear Nicklaus, 41, at once admired this strawberry-haired cub of 31 and couldn't wait to get to the next cave and maul him good, just to put him back in his place. They have been the two great rivals of golf for four years now, Nicklaus and Watson, and in that distinction there is both great mutual respect and intense desire to beat each other on the game's grandest occasions.
Even though they were not paired together for the final round of the 45th Masters tournament -- Watson playing with Australian Greg Norman and Nicklaus with John Mahaffey in the next-to-last twosome -- they spent a lot of time looking for and at each other through the fragrant air of an idyllic spring afternoon.
Even though Watson was always protecting a precarious lead of a stroke or two against other contending, including Miller, he only had eyes for Nicklaus.
Watson walked away from his par putt on the 11th hole and peered across the landscape to watch Nicklaus line up a tricky seven-foot putt on the 12th, where he had bunkered his tee shot and chipped seven feet past the hole. Nicklaus made his putt: the fifth good "save" already in a round where he was playing poorly but hanging in. The pro-Nicklaus gallery roared. Watson went back to work and calmly got down in two putts from 50 feet.
On the 13th, Nicklaus left an uphill putt of 16 feet for eagle short, and chastised himself. When he sank his one-footer for birdie, the crowd in the stand behind the green thundered approval. Cries of "Let's go, Jack," and "Charge, Jack" filled the air, loud enough to rustle the azaleas. The echoes were still reverberating as Watson hit his four-iron approach into the green too far right, and into Rae's Creek.
"Watson's in the water, Jack," screamed a man to Nicklaus, who looked like a hungry bear now on the 14th tee. But Watson, who had told himself all week that the most important thing was "never to make two mistakes in a row," dropped to a level lie, made a delicate wedge shot and saved par. Nicklaus, meanwhile, overhit his approach to the 14th green and made bogey from the back fringe, falling three strokes behind.
"Tom played fantastic down the stretch. He was very solid. He got himself in trouble at 13 when he went into the water, and he got out in five," said Nicklaus, who had promptly birdied the 15th and 16th to put on the pressure again.
"He never let anything bother him. Of course, I didn't do as much as I would have liked to test him. I shot 72 today, which is nothing to write home about. But I played a very good back nine. I shot 34 there. Tom Watson just beat me on the back nine.
"Yes, to be honest, I felt I should have won," Nicklaus went on. "I gave too much away yesterday (he shot 75 in Saturday's third round after a brilliant 65 on Friday) and on the front nine today. But I can't take anything away from Tom. He's mentally very tough, a very good competitor. He shot a good, solid 71 and won the golf tournament."
Most of the 82 players who started this Masters would have gladly made a pact with the devil if he guaranteed them second place before the first ball was struck, someone suggested on to Nicklaus today. But if he or Watson had known beforehand that they would be second, they wouldn't have bothered to show up, he was told.
The Golden Bear nodded his agreement. "I don't think either Tom or myself likes second place," he said. "I don't think there's anyone else playing today who fits that category, attitude-wise. I could be wrong about that. I've never asked anybody else . . . But I know Tom and I are interested in winning."
The competitive instincts and determination known truly only to champions -- "It comes from inside," said Watson -- are what make this rivalry special. A major title means more to Watson when he has to beat Nicklaus to win it. "It feels great to beat the top player in the game for the last 20 years," he said. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't."
Nicklaus didn't really have it today.He was not striking the ball well. He needed six splendid recovery shots to avert a disastrous round. But he kept hanging on his cuticles, making Watson play "down to the nails," as Nicklaus's Tuetonic forebears might put it.
"I don't think there's ever been a better last-day player than Jack -- even today, when he had nothing going," said Herbert Warren Wind, the great U.S. golf authority and Nicklaus biographer. "Jack would trip his grandmother if she was going in for a layup. How would you like to have this . . . coming at you all the time, challenging, challenging, never conceding a thing? Watson is the only player today who seems to thrive on it."