Watson prepared for Pebble finale

All these years later, it's the doughnuts.

That's what Tom Watson remembers about his anonymous trips to Pebble Beach, the pre-dawn journeys he made to the Monterey Peninsula while a student at Stanford, the freebie rounds on the storied course.

Yep, the doughnuts.

"Monterey had a little doughnut shop," Watson recalled. "They were little glazed doughnuts. I would get a dozen and a quart of milk and that was my breakfast. I ate those before I got to Pebble Beach."

Once there, Watson had made friends with the starter, who used to let Watson on the course for free. He would go off before the first tee time, solo, and finish before others barely got to the back nine.

A true affection for the place took hold, one that will continue next month when the U.S. Open plays Pebble Beach for the fifth time, with Watson keeping alive his streak of playing in all of them thanks to a special exemption from the United States Golf Association.

Now 60, Watson fondly recalled the routine he repeated a dozen or so times during his years at Stanford, leaving in darkness to get in those precious rounds, dreaming about winning the U.S. Open.

"I never played very well, but when I got to the 15th tee I said, 'All right, let's see if I can finish with four pars to win the U.S. Open,"' Watson said. "You play-act. Every golfer play-acts, pretends. I did it every time I played there. Let's see if I can finish. I played like crud the first 14 holes. Let's see if I can finish with four pars. Never did it. Never did it."

In fact, Watson never shot better than 75.

"I went down there Saturday mornings," he said. "I would leave at 5, get down there about 6:30, stopping for a dozen doughnuts -- the little ones. ... Maybe that's the reason I never shot better than 75, looking back on it."

And yet, he managed to qualify for his first U.S. Open as an amateur in 1972, when it happened to be played at Pebble Beach.

And he captured his one and only U.S. Open title a decade later in one of the most memorable major championships of all time, chipping in for an unlikely birdie on the par-3 17th hole of the final round for a victory that denied Jack Nicklaus a record fifth U.S. Open title.

Now he's coming back again, and far from the ceremonial golfer you would expect of a man living in his seventh decade.

Watson nearly won last summer's British Open, losing in a playoff to Stewart Cink. He won the season-opening event on the Champions Tour. And he was in contention after the first round of the Masters, shooting an opening-round 67 before tying for 18th.

He is playing in this week's Senior PGA Championship, the first of six consecutive majors on both tours that will include the U.S. Open and the British Open at St. Andrews.

"I'll tell you what, if he had hit the ball in his day like he hits it now ... " said Nick Price, the last player (in 2005) to earn a special exemption to the U.S. Open. "He'll be the first one to tell you he figured something out with his shoulders [back in the early 1990s]. He's got a DVD coming out. Tom doesn't let out much, so I'll have to buy the DVD to find out what it is.

"But if he hit the ball in his prime like he hits it now and the way he putted, who knows how many tournaments and majors he would have won. And it quite often happens that the older you get the more you know about the golf swing and the more efficient it becomes."

Watson has said he came to understand things about the golf swing that helped him hit the ball better than he had in his prime. That is why he feels the 1994 British Open -- won by Price at Turnberry -- is one of his biggest disappointments. Watson tied for 11th but held the 36-hole lead and was tied for third going into the final round. His putting let him down, not the way he hit the ball.

As he got older, the putter became more and more of a nemesis. But his ball striking got better, so much so that, given the proper circumstances on a fast-running links, he was able to come within one par of becoming the oldest major champion -- by 11 years! -- at the British Open.

"You watch him on the range. It's an amazing thing," Price said. "He goes out there and starts off with 4-irons. Most of us are trying not to get a hernia or pull a hamstring or something when you're hitting sand wedges, and he just stands out there and starts rifling these 4-irons."

Watson's lone U.S. Open title came after a stretch of six top-10 finishes in eight years at the national championship, including a tie for third in 1980, when a 40-year-old Nicklaus won his fourth Open title.

His best chance to win the Open after Pebble came the following year when he finished second by a stroke to Larry Nelson at Oakmont -- with Nelson shooting a final-round 67 to Watson's 69. Watson also lost by a shot to Scott Simpson at the 1987 Open at Olympic Club.

Watson returned to Pebble Beach in 1992 and missed the cut, then tied for 27th there in 2000.

He has played in just one Open since -- in 2003 at Olympia Fields. That year he also received a special exemption from the USGA and produced one of the big stories of the tournament by taking the first-round lead with his dying caddie, Bruce Edwards -- who was also on the bag for the win in 1982 -- by his side. He went on to tie for 28th.

As for going back 38 years to the first one?

"I have vivid memories of that week playing Pebble Beach," Watson said. "Greens were dead on Tuesday or Wednesday. They were blue, black, and just hard as a rock. Just like hitting the concrete, as in, whoa," he said. "Then the winds came up. Just to get the ball on any green there was just a chore.

"I don't remember what I shot the first three rounds, but I do remember what I shot the last round. I shot 76. I passed 30 people shooting 76 on the last round. ... I was just happy to be in my first U.S. Open, to get to play in the tournament.

"The U.S. Open is our national open and our national championship, and it's the one I wanted to win the most. Still do."

Afterward, Watson said he watched Nicklaus finish off and win the tournament -- including the 1-iron into the par-3 17th. Watson ended up tied for 29th.

"My love affair with that golf course has been in the making for a lot of years," Watson said. "To go back there again is -- I'm very grateful to have another chance at it.

"Great bookends in my career playing my first and most likely my last -- unless I play awfully well."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.