Inside The Ropes
Nick Watney went from a blue-collar upbringing to playing against Tiger. Get Nick's scoop on which player he'd pick with a life on the line, the best pro move he's ever seen & the best player you've never seen
In Dixon, Calif., about half an hour outside Sacramento. The town was small enough that when a McDonald's opened, it was a big deal. To fill up my days, my mom started dropping me off at a muny in Davis on her way to work. From the time I was 13 until I was out of high school, that's where I hung out. At Davis Golf Course we got unlimited golf for $5 a day. There were maybe 25 kids, dropped off from little towns in the area. A lot of days we'd play 45 holes, eating a sack lunch and squeezing packets of lemon juice and sugar from the snack bar into water to make lemonade. We gambled, played cross-country, putted, did scrambles and alternate shot. It was a blue-collar upbringing, and I'm grateful for it. You don't need to grow up on a great course to become a good player. As my dad says, "Who knows where you would have wound up if you were a country-club kid?"
MY DAD drove a beer truck. My mom and I would see him out on his route.
We'd go into a grocery store and watch him fix up displays and stock the shelves.
I was pretty much awed by it. When we got home, I'd get sodas and stock the refrigerator. When he got up early to go to work, I'd try to be up to say goodbye to him. He was my first hero. I wanted to be just like him. I still do.
ONE DAY we got behind a foursome of older couples, and they were very slow. One of my buddies said, "Let's get them moving." You know how kids are. He was as likely to top it as get it airborne, but he nails this 5-wood and catches one of the ladies in the arm. Knocked some clubs out of her hand. At first we were laughing, for reasons only kids would laugh at something like that. But when she went in and got the pro, it wasn't funny anymore.
I LOVE HIP-HOP MUSIC so much I can't even describe it. If I ever met Jay-Z, I'd lock up, be completely star-struck. What could I say that would possibly interest him? How often do you get to hang out with someone who's the best ever at what they do? At the AT&T this year, I played with Kelly Slater, the surfer. A legend. I had a much harder time talking to Kelly than I did, say, Jack Nicklaus the first time I met him.
OK, I WAS TERRIFIED the first time I met Jack, too. But I calmed myself down by reasoning that we had the same name—kind of. My full first name is Nicholas. His last name is Nicklaus. Get it? So I figured that we had that—and golf—in common.
I DIDN'T KNOW FRED COUPLES until I played Presidents Cup for him. They say it's best not to meet your heroes, because they might treat you badly or you'll see a dark side of them, and you'll be let down. But Fred, he's the real deal. He's every bit as smooth, powerful and relaxed as you see on TV. He's also just the right amount human. There were a couple of moments when he appeared a tiny bit uncomfortable in front of the microphone. It's that normalcy, the slight vulnerability, that draws people to him.
AS A KID, I saw the fame athletes got and was drawn to that. Aren't we all? But after I turned pro, I saw up close how people dug into Tiger. People seemed poised, just waiting for him to make a mistake. I knew it was unlikely I'd get to be as famous as Tiger, but that digging still kind of scared me. The result is, I'm a little socially awkward. I'm quiet in most situations because I'm nervous about saying the wrong thing.
I SAY "SOCIALLY AWKWARD" instead of "shy" because depending on the situation, I can swing too far the other way. At the Masters two years ago, I snapped the shaft on my 6-iron on the 11th hole. My mom, who was in the gallery, was horrified because a lady next to her said, "Shame on him for doing that at the Masters!" Playing "Halo 2" with a buddy a few years ago, I got sick of getting killed and spiked the controller on the floor. Busted it into pieces. Leading at Bay Hill in 2008, I had some choice language after making an 8 on the 16th hole. Depending on the situation and who I'm around, I'm not always quiet.
ALL GAMES are good for golf. Not just sports, but games—gin, Monopoly, video games, everything. They teach you how to read an opponent. How to size up situations. When to apply pressure, take a gamble or play it safe. Good game-players make the best golfers.
YOU SAY Tiger has never missed a four-footer he really needed. Well, I can think of one: Against me in the WGC-Match Play in 2012. I had a 1-up lead on 18, and Tiger had a four-foot putt to extend the match. I thought the putt was as good as in; my glove was out of my pocket, and I had my yardage book in hand, ready for the first playoff hole. He missed, which was shocking. When I went to shake his hand, I was so curious how he was going to react. But he said, "Good match, Nick," in the most sincere way.
I READ THAT HAROLD RAMIS, the guy who directed "Caddyshack," just passed away. It's the best golf movie ever because it didn't try to be anything but completely ridiculous. The problem with serious golf movies is authenticity. You see a supposedly good golfer waggle his club, and you know immediately he's a 14-handicapper. There's nowhere to hide; it's like noticing the strings on the puppets. I'll watch a rerun of "The Greatest Game Ever Played," but the rest, forget it.