Craig Watson reflects on the Masters experience 25 years later

Golf does syrupy sentimentality much like Augusta National. The 87th Masters is upon us and by the time we get to the ceremonial tee on Thursday, the level of sugary lard and honeyed reverence will be so high that shots of the inaugural Men’s Major of the Year are likely to be accompanied by a warning from the Food Standards Agency on excessive consumption of sweets.

We joke, of course, but, my goodness, they like to lay on the pomp and pageantry in mighty chunks. But we probably wouldn’t have it any other way. The Masters ultimately remains a comforting haven of uniformity; a golfing springtime rite where familiarity breeds cooing contentment.

Augusta is said to be the closest thing to heaven for a golfer. And it’s just as hard to get in. Of course, for those who enter these pearly gates while golfing, the memories of the Masters linger.

It has now been 25 years since Craig Watson, that well known progenitor of the domestic scene, played the Augusta Showpiece in 1998 as reigning amateur champion. The 1990s were a good time for Scotland’s leading figures in unpaid play. 1992 amateur champion Stephen Dundas was playing at the 1993 Masters, while gentle giant Gordon Sherry had to crouch up into Magnolia Lane to keep the branches from branching when he accepted his invitation to Augusta

in 1996.

When Watson thought of Georgia in 1998, his trip coincided with the opening of the Georgia Cup, a now-established annual clash between the American and British amateur champions the week before the Masters. However, it wasn’t quite the casual hitter that Watson expected.

“I was asked if I wanted to play Matt Kuchar, the reigning US champion, and I thought it was just a bounce game,” the East Renfrewshire member recalled. “I walked into the pro shop and it was full of Georgia Cup flags, hats, bags, headwear, everything. It was like walking into a merchandise tent at the Open. I said to the pro, ‘What’s that Georgia Cup?’ He said: “That’s what you play against Matt Kuchar tomorrow.” So that was my introduction. And I lost 3&1.”

As for Watson’s introduction to Augusta National? Well, after the benefit of being handed the keys to a courtesy Cadillac in which to “walk around for a week”, Watson veered off the straight and narrow when the game actually started. “I was on the 10th tee and was six-over,” said the 56-year-old, looking back on the opening round.

“From there you can look over and see the scoreboard for the players coming on the 18th. Ben Crenshaw, a former Masters champion, was 10-over to 17 and I was like, ‘**** dear, I can definitely beat that’. Luckily I did. I parried every hole from the 10th to the 17th, and then I usually three-putted the last one

for a bogey in a 79. At least I had broken 80.”

Watson may not have set the Azaleas on fire with his opening-day performance, but at least a second-round draw put him alongside some pretty high-profile company. “If you got a bad result there was a good chance you were playing with a legend,” said the former GB&I Walker Cup captain. “And I have Arnold Palmer.”

In 1998, old Arnie, a four-time Masters champion, was on the verge of 70 and was a very ceremonial fighter. “He didn’t hit it very high off the ground, but he knocked me out the first time,” said Watson, who was never one of golf’s great bombers. “He must have shaken hands with almost everyone along the way. I should have tried to talk to him a little more, but I was just trying to take it all in. It was quite an experience.”

A true career amateur, Watson can always say he made it to the Masters. The man he beat to get there in the 1997 amateur championship was making his mark at Augusta in the meantime. In 2008, South African Trevor Immelman slipped into the green jacket. “I’m sure he never wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I wonder how my life would have been if I hadn’t lost to Craig Watson?'” said the Scot with a grin. Craig Watson reflects on the Masters experience 25 years later

Russell Falcon

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