Photography by Leon Harris

Watson in his Element

Potentially the greatest sports story ever came within an eight-foot putt of being told after the 2009 British Open. Just six weeks shy of his 60th birthday, one of the game’s true champions was poised to eclipse his finest hour 32 years earlier on the same stretch of Scotland’s west coast. Alas it was not to be, but what a show he put on! Paul Trow interviews the serial winner who will now also be remembered for coming second.

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Does any of this sound familiar? One of the finest golfers in the history of the game celebrated a landmark birthday in September this year. He was a country boy with an infectious smile and an attacking approach which immediately endeared him to fans and fellow competitors alike. The man in question triumphed once, thrillingly, in the U.S. Open while recording multiple victories in both the Masters and British Open. Infuriatingly, he drew a blank in the PGA Championship, but since passing 50 he has also won five ‘majors’ on the Champions Tour. And his biggest rival throughout much of his career was Jack Nicklaus.

His name? Well it could easily be Arnold Palmer, who ticks every one of the boxes outlined above, but the correct answer on this occasion is Tom Watson.

Thomas Sturges Watson was born on 4 September 1949 in Kansas City, the son of Raymond Watson, an insurance salesman, and his wife Sally. He has won eight major championships—one more than Mr. Palmer, as it happens—and these break down into one U.S. Open (in 1982 at Pebble Beach), two Green Jackets (1977 and 1981) and five Claret Jugs (1975, 1977, 1980, 1982 and 1983). Four of those titles were claimed when Nicklaus was runner-up.

Yet Watson may be destined to be remembered most readily generations from now for a remarkable feat in the twilight of his playing career—one that defied logic, history and Father Time himself. Six weeks short of his 60th birthday and less than six months after undergoing hip-replacement surgery, he came within an eight-foot putt of becoming the oldest major champion by more than 11 years.

The scene was Turnberry on the west coast of Scotland where, back in 1977, he had prevailed in one of the most compelling head-to-head contests witnessed in any sport, finishing 65-65 to pip Nicklaus by one solitary stroke with the rest of the field absolutely nowhere.

Six years ago he won again over the Ailsa Course, this time chalking up the first of his three victories in the Senior British Open. To say he is something of a course specialist is clearly an understatement, but nothing could possibly have prepared the golfing public for the events that unfolded during the third week of July.

Quite simply, he led for most of the tournament and held firm throughout the final day as his rivals, one by one, fell away. In the end, he needed a par-four at the 18th to lift the Claret Jug for a sixth time, 34 years after first doing so at Carnoustie and 26 years after his fifth success at Royal Birkdale. An iron off the tee followed by another crisp strike from the middle of the fairway seemed to have sealed the deal. His ball bounced on the front of the green and the grandstand roared. Seconds later, the Greek Chorus hit a discordant note when his ball took a freakish second bounce and hopped through the back of the green into light rough. Watson was just 25 feet from the cup and only needed to get down in two to complete his miracle. But, having chosen to putt rather than chip, his lag charged eight feet by and his subsequent stab at sporting immortality was always wide of the mark. As he tapped in for a sorry five, he was crestfallen and, for the first time that week, he looked his age. Needless to say, the four-hole playoff against fellow American Stewart Cink was one-way traffic—all in favor of the younger man. The golfing gods had tantalised Watson right to the door of Valhalla only to slam it in his face.

But it is the dignified and deserving Cink’s misfortune that the crowning glory of his career to date could turn out to be most significant as the correct answer to a quiz question. Who was the blighter who stopped Tom Watson from…?

Perhaps drawing on classroom lessons learned as a psychology graduate of Stanford University, Watson is philosophical about the outcome. “I’ve always believed that it’s onward to the next week and forget what you did in the past, except where it might help you play better golf,” he said. “But the old fogey almost did it. It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn’t it? I hit the shot I meant to [at 18]. When it was in the air I said, ‘I like it.’ And then all of a sudden it goes over the green and I just didn’t get it down after that.

“Yes, it’s a great disappointment. It tears at your gut as [losing] has always torn at my gut. It’s not easy to take, but I’ll always remember coming up the 18th hole and hearing the crowd’s cheers. That warmth makes you feel human. It makes you feel so good.

“Turnberry suits my game better than some of the other Open courses, although Muirfield is also a favorite of mine. I wasn’t pushing myself at any stage but I was trying to win the golf tournament.

“I knew I had a good chance because the course was suited to me and I knew how to play certain holes if the wind were to blow. Saturday [day three] was the most serene round I’ve ever had in a major. Sunday I felt more pressure but I’ve dealt with that before and tend to play better with it.”

Watson intends to tee it up at St. Andrews next July for the 150th anniversary of the Open, and expects that to be his final appearance in the game’s oldest championship. “Unless I finish in the top 15 then it will be my last year of exemption because they’ve changed the rule so you can’t play after the age of 60.

“At St Andrews in 1978 and 1984 I had a good chance both times, but I haven’t played well there since, largely because my putting wasn’t very good. No matter how you play there, you’re going to face a lot of lengthy putts in the 30-80ft bracket—more than on any other course you’ll play. Tiger Woods won there the last two times because he found his touch to leave nearly all these long putts within two feet of the hole.”

If he achieves a top-15 finish—not so fanciful in light of this year’s performance—Watson will then face a return in 2011 to Royal St George’s which has never been a happy hunting ground. “I’ve always had a hard time at Sandwich and I’ve never gone into an Open there when I’ve been playing well.”

Turnberry wasn’t the only tournament in 2009 where Watson had a gilt-edged chance snatched from his grip at the death. A couple of months later he led the final Champions Tour ‘major’ of the season, the Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship at Baltimore Country Club, by four shots after 54 holes only to miss out by the narrowest margin as Jay Haas shot a closing 64.

“I got ambushed by a great last round from Jay. It was a tough day for the final round and the wind was blowing. The golf course was especially tough and very few players broke 70. I shot 70 and didn’t play too badly—not as well as in the third round, but well enough I thought to win the tournament.”

In truth, being pipped at the post is nothing new for Watson. When he turned pro after an amateur career that was distinguished but hardly stellar, he swiftly acquired a reputation as a gifted player whose nerve was suspect. The critics, eager for blood, jumped on him when he blew an outstanding chance to win the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 1974.

“I had a chat with Ben Hogan shortly after that week and I asked him—the ‘Ice Man’, remember—if he had ever got nervous. I recall Ben waited a moment, then looked at me and said: ‘Nervous, Tom? Sometimes I was jumping out of my skin’. I asked Lee Trevino the same question and he said: ‘Some days I wake up and I’m so nervous I can’t hold the fork steady at breakfast’. Those guys’ honesty helped me.”

Hogan wasn’t the only ‘great’ to take pity on Watson. “Byron Nelson contacted me and told me to keep doing what I was doing and to believe in myself. His words helped me to win the Western Open, my first PGA Tour title, a short while later. He set the most wonderful example to all golfers with the caring way he treated people.”

Hogan, Nelson, Trevino, Palmer, Nicklaus—Watson acknowledges the influence of all. “To that list you can add Gene Littler, Frank Beard and Sam Snead, who was still playing when I came out on Tour. I asked my local pros, ‘what should I do when I get out on Tour?’ They all said to make sure I took every opportunity to play with the best players, in practise or whatever. There was no video tape in those days, so teachers had to look at your swing with the naked eye and teach you that way.”

Drawing on this advice, Watson has just completed an instructional DVD called Lessons of a Lifetime which will be released early in 2010. “It’s a distillation of ideas from all those people from whom I’ve learned. Some people learn from magazines and teachers, or simply by trial and error. Others practice a lot, but in reality most people learn by watching others play.

“My game is based on certain fundamentals. If you understand the motion of your body, your arms will follow and you will be a good golfer. This I learned by observation. My epiphany was at 3.15pm on the day before the pro-am for the 1994 Hertiage Golf Classic. You could say I learned the swing late in life and since then the game has been easy.

“I have no teacher today. I know my own swing and I really haven’t had too many problems over the years.” There is, of course, one exception to that statement. “My short putting stroke wants to go outside the line. I’ve been fighting it over the last 10 years. On the longer distances, the stroke works fine,” he confides tersely.

Watson took up golf at Kansas City Country Club where his father, who died in 2000, was a prominent player. “When I started playing I caddied for him and learned a lot about the game from him and his friends—they were all good golfers—and from the pro there, Stan Thirsk.”

However, his father’s contribution extended way beyond setting a good example on the course. “He and my mother are the reason my playing career has lasted so long. Joking aside, I’ve got good genes from my parents that keep me very supple and in good shape.” Without such inherited attributes, which no doubt he has passed on to his two grown-up children, it would surely have been impossible for him to recover so quickly from the replacement operation he had to his left hip in October 2008.

“My femur was sitting in the socket with no labrum between the bones. It was bone on bone, thus making it very stiff at times. It never really hurt badly, but it ached quite a lot when I was in bed at night. I didn’t need to do too much physio after the operation, but I was able to put 100 percent weight on my foot as soon as I got out of bed and I was off crutches after a week.

“I was back playing golf within two months. I asked my doctor—Joel Matta, founder and director of Saint John’s Health Center Hip and Pelvis Institute in Santa Monica, California—about the healing process and he said it would be six weeks so I added another two weeks before hitting a ball. Then my first day back I hit 200 balls straight off, one after the other.

“It’s been a very successful operation. I can’t tell you how good that feels.”

And his ball striking feels good too. “I hit it about five percent further today than I did in my prime but that’s because of advances in club technology and especially the golf ball.

“They’re now making softer balls that won’t fly, but that’s because of the impending changes to the rules governing grooves. Going back to square grooves means you won’t get so much control out of the rough and the ball will fly more. The changes will have a definite impact and I’m very much in favor of them.”

Seamlessly, the conversation had switched to a Watson hobbyhorse. “If I was in charge of the equipment rules, I’d do four things: ratchet back the ball by 10 percent; make long putters no longer than a standard driver; make grooves that impart less spin; and reduce the head of the driver to 240cc and limit its length to a maximum of 48 inches.

“The current size of driver heads (up to 460cc) makes a big difference and makes them very forgiving. Tests prove that if you strike a ball as much as three-quarters of an inch away from the center of the face, or sweet spot, you will on average only lose four yards of distance. If you get an old persimmon driver and miss the sweet spot by the same distance it will cost you 49 yards, or 20 percent of your overall distance.”

Other interests that hold his attention during the 37 weeks of each year he spends away from the tournament scene include course design, charity work, maintaining the 400-acre farm just outside Kansas City where he lives with his second wife Hilary, and cutting horses.

Cutting horses? “The horse is trained to cut a cow and keep it from going back to the herd. I’m not involved in training the horses, just riding them. At present I’m learning the controls, but I can only ride sparingly because of my hip. I’m improving and I’ve started competing locally.

“The farm also takes a bit of looking after—I do everything from mowing to driving tractors. We have quite a few horses and one lonely cow called Dolly—she’s a Corriente, which is a Mexican breed.”

Watson’s skills as a course designer are currently focused close to home as well. “I’ve only got one design project in full production: Loch Lloyd Country Club right here in Belton, Missouri. I’m designing a new nine and renovating the existing 18. It should be playable by June next year [2010].

By then Watson’s thoughts will inevitably be turning towards a summer week in St. Andrews when he locks horns once again with the winner of the last two British Opens staged over the Old Course, a player he admires without reservation. “Nobody has dominated the sport like Tiger Woods. He must be the best player that’s ever lived. When he doesn’t win he nearly always finishes in the top three.

“I was watching him not long ago in the company of Jack [Nicklaus] and I said, ‘Jack, he’s the best ever don’t you think?’. Jack said ‘yes’. Then I felt a bit embarrassed because I’d just said this to Jack Nicklaus, so I added, ‘mind you, you were quite good yourself’, and Jack smiled that way he does and replied, ‘yeah, I suppose I was quite good looking back’.”

It was Watson who accompanied Nicklaus on his long walk out of the British Open when he played for the last time at St Andrews in 2005. When they stopped for photographers on the Swilken Bridge that sunny Friday afternoon and took in the extraordinary scene as players and public lined the 18th fairway on the Old Course, it was Watson who broke up.

“I was just thinking about all the great times we’d had but Jack turned to me and said in that stern way of his, ‘pull yourself together Tom, you’ve got a hole to complete and a cut to make in The Open’.” He did both, tying for 41st. Next year, the throng will be equally vociferous in their appreciation of this adopted son of Scotland when he marches up the 18th for the last time. As he pauses on the bridge, there will be tears yet again, but they won’t just be his.

Tom Watson
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