Even after five decades of playing professional golf, Tom Watson is still searching for that next great round. Here, he talks about the competitive fire within and shares his views on the current state of the game.
Tom Watson is not your typical Hall of Fame golfer, who has resigned himself to holding onto memories from the past. Instead he is like an old fighter, who, at the grand old age of 69, is still thinking where his next great round will come from.
It’s this kind of perseverance which saw the man from Kansas City win 39 PGA Tour tournaments, eight of which were majors, and amass 14 Champions Tour victories, in a professional career which has spanned an extraordinary 47 years.
Like Seve Ballesteros, many would say Watson’s success has been defined by the artistry of his short game – fabulous chipping and a great judge of distance. But, looking back on nearly five decades worth of results and performances, what does the six-time PGA Player of the Year himself believe has been the key to his achievements?
“I had the desire to be the best and worked harder than anyone else out there,” says a proud Watson. “I could hit the ball a long way but the most important thing of all was my putting. I was born with it. I putted a lot as a kid.
“There were nine holes back home when I was young, and I wouldn’t stop until I had completed them in 27 shots and made nine-under par. Nine aces. I was the best putter out there. So, the message here is if you can hit the ball a long way and putt well, you are going to win.”
Certainly, Watson’s magic touch with the putter could explain why he edged so many tight encounters at the business end of tournaments. When the nerves kicked in and the adrenaline took over, Watson always seemed assured of making the putt.
He says his father’s tip – choosing a dimple on the middle of the ball and hitting it with the middle of the putter while fixing your eyes on it as you swing – was key to his peerless stroke. But, while lethal putting is a necessity to succeed, it’s not the be all and end all. So how did he really learn to win?
“By failing,” replies Watson. “Bobby Jones said a very inspirational line once. ‘I never learnt anything in victory but in defeat.’ And that could not be any truer. For example, did you hear what Bryson DeChambeau did after winning The Northern Trust? He went out and played 18 again because he hit a wayward tee shot there in his final round. He didn’t accept it, even though he had won. That tells me that this kid’s got it.
“That’s how you win. You make mistakes and practice until you overcome them. Bottom line is in the first four to five years of my career, I learned how to deal with the pressure. I failed a bunch of times, but it made me stronger. When I first came on Tour I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know if I could make a birdie or not. But that maturing process helps to turn you into a champion.”
In what began a lasting affinity with the links courses of the British Isles, in 1975 at Carnoustie, Watson won The Open Championship at his first attempt, pipping Australian, Jack Newton, by one stroke in an 18-hole play-off.
“That’s how you win. You make mistakes and practice until you overcome them. Bottom line is in the first four to five years of my career, I learned how to deal with the pressure.” – Tom Watson
However, despite winning his first major and being into his fifth season as a professional, a 25-year old Watson, who battled with an initial reputation for choking at the vital moments, still didn’t feel completely at home rubbing shoulders with the game’s elite. As he explains, it wasn’t until two years later when he started to believe he could reach the top.
“The year of 1977 changed my thinking,” says Watson. “I found a new swing when I was in Japan, which allowed me to hit the ball straight. I used that swing thought for about 18 months, and I began to believe in my golf. It was the Masters win and then the Turnberry victory that followed, which really confirmed to myself that I could beat the best.”
Beat the best, he did. In both the 1977 Masters and Open victories Watson mentions, his fiercely accurate putting and canniness to sense the moment and seize it, proved too much for the second-placed Jack Nicklaus. Watson’s iconic battle with Nicklaus over the two final rounds at a sunny Turnberry later became known as the ‘Duel in the Sun’.
Indeed, their clashes captured headlines. Famously, they faced each other in the final stretch of another major – the 1982 US Open – where remarkably, again, Watson came out on top to win his seventh major. At a time when Nicklaus held a very firm grip on golf, Watson fearlessly took down perhaps the game’s greatest-ever player.
“That was always my goal – to try and beat Jack,” says Watson. “I had studied Jack and played with him. Jack was a better player than I was. But I had a streak there when I was pretty good, and I knew I could beat him.”
Although Watson was locked in a ferocious battle with Nicklaus for much of his career, the friendly relationship between the two is well documented and is a big part of the reason why so many tuned in to see them go head-to-head.
The perfect example of this was at the 2005 Open Championship at St Andrews – Nicklaus’ last major – when Watson broke down in tears on the 18th as the Golden Bear, who he says, “had the best understanding of golf,” bid farewell to the professional game.
“I cried like a baby walking up that last hole on the Friday,” says Watson, still sounding emotional about it. “It was typical Jack. I told him ‘walk in front of me and take it in’ but he wouldn’t have it. I was right on the cut line and needed to make par, but I couldn’t stop crying.
“Jack then said to me ‘get a hold of yourself, you still have a golf tournament to play.’ It’s amazing, really. Even though it was his last major, he was thinking of me. That’s what Jack is all about. A gentleman.”
With Watson’s career so famously connected with Nicklaus’, it is unfortunate that he was unable to match what his great rival achieved in winning the US PGA Championship and completing the career grand slam.
Watson came close in 1978, losing in a play-off at Oakmont to John Mahaffey and, although he says it doesn’t annoy him, you can sense some disappointment as he thinks back, which demonstrates how his emotions are still tangled with golf. Indeed, it makes you wonder if his results on the Champions Tour today still mean as much to him as the professional victories.
“Yeah, sure they do,” says Watson. “That is why I play. I play to win. I am often asked ‘when do you think you’ll retire?’ I am golfer. This is what I do. Golf has defined me in a lot of ways. I still enjoy playing. I don’t hit the ball as far anymore but every now and again I can produce a little magic.”
Indeed, he can. At Augusta back in April, the timeless Watson won the Masters Par-3 Contest, becoming its oldest ever champion. And at The Senior Open Championship three months later he was in contention after two rounds.
This year, it’s safe to say that the youngsters on Tour have been given an insight into what Watson was capable of at his prime. Certainly, with modern prizemoney and sponsorship deals massively inflated compared to Watson’s era, it would be easy for him to look at today’s game and think what might have been.
“It would have been nice for me to play for that much money,” says Watson. “You know, we are professionals. We play for money. But I have been very fortunate to play a game for a living. I don’t need to worry about money or employment. So, would I prefer to play now rather than in the era I did? No.”
As the conversation moves to the contrasting eras, it would only be right to touch upon the distance debate – perhaps the biggest talking point in golf right now. When Watson was at his pomp, during the ‘70s and ‘80s, the advancement in equipment and ball technology had not reached the kind of operative levels seen in the current game.
So, with players hitting longer and straighter than ever, and some of the sport’s historic courses being rendered obsolete, what does a man who has played professionally for nearly half a century, think should happen?
“There should be a competitive ball,” says Watson. “The ball is why players are hitting longer. We all know that. Everybody should play the same ball. But there are problems with that. For example, who is going to determine the characteristics of that one ball? Is it the PGA Tour, the USGA or the R&A? And would all the Tours and tournaments agree to it?
“Then there are the manufacturers. They are marketing their balls saying, ‘this golf ball is better than these other golf balls.’ But if every golf ball is the same, that marketing scheme goes out the window.
“And then you could have amateurs playing different balls to the professionals. But it’s the professionals who the manufacturers use to market their ball, so how would that work? If I was pushed on it, I’d leave it all alone as golf is going along just fine.”
As said, with prizemoney on the PGA Tour higher than ever before and fierce competition at the top of the game, on the surface, golf certainly looks to be in a great place.
But, as Watson only knows too well, the fight for our leisure time is becoming ever more intense, which means golf could have a fight ahead in staying relevant to the younger generations.
“I think right now the professional game is in a great state,” says Watson. “We have young players as the stars and they attract young people to the game. And then we have Tiger Woods coming back, which will help.
“But, on the other side, the amateur game is struggling. In 2007, participation fell in the US, partly due to economic reasons. Although figures have started to rise here again in the last two years, we are still recovering from that.
“I think a big mistake was when we eliminated the caddy programmes where the kids would earn some cash and be inspired to play the game. I’ve now started a programme called Clubs for Kids, where for one day I give them a club and try to teach them a few things to get them started. We all have to do what we can to help the game grow.”
“Everybody should play the same ball. But there are problems with that. For example, who is going to determine the characteristics of that one ball?” – Tom Watson
It is testament to Watson’s good nature that he is endeavouring to give back to golf, despite being in his late 60s and having to care for his wife, Hilary, who is currently fighting a battle with pancreatic cancer. Indeed, a true gentleman who embodies the values and etiquette of the game, the Missouri native radiates a warmth few players do. But, clearly, behind that friendly smile and courteousness is a competitive streak that still runs deep and has seen him forge a formidable career.
His rivalry with Nicklaus garnered interest in the sport on a scale which we have not seen since. Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods have fought their battles but not intensely in majors like Watson and Nicklaus did. As he says, his winning record against Nicklaus was primarily down to his peerless putting. More than most players, a man for statistics and small margins, Watson played with his brain, which echoes in his response when, as a parting shot, he is probed on what he would be if he wasn’t a golfer.
“Well, I always had an affinity to medicine and biology,” ends Watson. “I probably would have been a surgeon.”