July 1, 2013

My Shot: Tom Watson

Old men can't jump, golf nightmares are hell, and why you should 'kill the pig.' A revealing interlude with one of the all-time greats

Tom Watson, photographed April 29, 2004, at Greystone Golf Country Club in Hoover, Ala.

Tom Watson, photographed April 29, 2004, at Greystone Golf Country Club in Hoover, Ala.

Five-time British Open champion Age 54 Stilwell, Kansas

From the time I won the Kansas City Match Play championship at age 14, I never wanted to be anything but a golfer. I found that I liked hitting good shots in front of people. I discovered that—at least when I swung the club—I had a little ham in me. That thrills me to this day, hitting shots that people can admire and wonder, How did he do that?

Golfers who play a lot of courses often encounter short ledges or retaining walls, and I always had fun hopping down from them. I could jump off something six feet high and land like a cat, no problem. Well, today I can't jump off anything higher than two feet without it just killing me. To realize it's going to be that way from now on . . . it isn't easy.

My first two years on tour I roomed with Ron Cerrudo and Bob Zender. Ron had won the Cajun Classic, and I asked him to tell me everything about it. I must have asked him to tell that story 20 times, and every time he told it I sort of lived the experience along with him. Ron doesn't know it, but when I won my first tournament, the 1974 Western Open, his telling of that story did a lot for me. I almost felt I'd been there before.

I can still win a major. Things would have to go just right, but it can happen. The British Open this year is at Troon. Remember what happened there in 1982? I sure do.

Some guys have trouble sleeping the night before an important round. I never have. Invariably I sleep longer and better, and have more dreams, when I'm in contention and feeling pressure.

Not that all those dreams are good. I've had nightmares about golf. Who hasn't? I have two bad, recurring dreams. In one, I'm putting on a green that is cone-shaped, and the hole is at the top of the cone, so the ball either rolls back to my feet or goes past the crest and 30 feet away on the other side. In the other dream, I'm boxed in and don't have room to swing. Something vague is crowding me—the gallery maybe, or ropes, or something I can't pinpoint. I used to dream I was falling, which is the most common dream people have. That dream stopped. The golf dreams stayed.

A lot of amateurs who slice don't release the club well through impact. They don't "kill the pig." It's kind of a silly image, but picture a pig standing to your rear and to the left, adjacent to your left hip. You want to rotate the club to square at impact, then let it close even farther so that early in the follow-through you whack the pig in the head with the toe of the club. To kill the pig, you have to release the club. It's a nice little slice cure.

Did I have Jack Nicklaus' number? Let's see: I did get the better of Jack at the British Open in 1977, at the U.S. Open in 1982 and the Masters in 1981. But he finished first in majors 18 times, and in the top three 46 times. So did I have his number? The short answer—and it can't be any shorter—is no.

At the 1981 Ryder Cup, my swing was a mess. Jack was my foursomes partner, and when I drove I put him in the tall heather about four times. I asked Jack for a lesson, and one thing he said really stuck with me: "As you get older your swing will get better." I thought, Yeah, sure it will. But Jack turned out to be right. These days my swing is much more rotary, or around, as opposed to upright. It's a more natural way to swing, easier on the body and every bit as sound. My ball flight is lower; I can't hit the fairway woods real high anymore, which is a bit of a drawback. But I'm much straighter and a better golfer from tee to green than I was 20 years ago.

In second grade I got sent to the principal's office every day for two weeks. A different reason every day. I'd finish my work ahead of the other kids and then have a terrible time sitting there doing nothing. The teacher, old Mrs. McKinley, didn't like me very much. I'm sure if Ritalin had been available somebody would have suggested I needed it. Thankfully it hadn't been invented yet, and somehow I turned out fine.

Bruce Edwards knew me so well. Whenever I got to feeling sorry for myself or started to get discouraged, Bruce would straighten me out. "Don't be a baby," he'd say, or "Let's stop moping and get with the program." I don't like being talked to that way, but when it came from Bruce I took it and usually responded to it. I've talked a lot about how Bruce made me better as a person, because I don't want to lose sight of the big picture. But he made me a better golfer, too. All those great years I had, all the success I enjoyed, was realized with Bruce by my side. How can I look back at all that and not love and miss him like a brother?

Growing up in Kansas City, I have a healthy respect for lightning. A policeman friend of mine told me about encountering a lightning victim whose body inside was turned into something like Jell-O. At the 1975 U.S. Open at Medinah I saw a flash of lightning and then heard the rumble of thunder within five seconds, which meant the lightning was less than a mile away. Nobody moved, but I said, "That's it. I'm invoking the lightning rule. I'm walking in." I was in the clubhouse for 20 minutes when P.J. Boatwright, the USGA's executive director, came in and said, "I need to talk to you." He had a problem, I think, with my walking in. I told him about the lightning, but P.J. seemed dubious. He said, "Let's go outside and just see about this lightning." We no sooner had stepped out the door when lightning struck right in front of us. The flash and boom were almost simultaneous. I didn't have to say another word, and the look on P.J.'s face told me he got the message.

Never saw a sport psychologist. Nothing wrong with them if they can help a guy deal with pressure. I never saw the need for one.

Many players on the senior tour wear magnets and copper bracelets, take herbal remedies and alternative medicines. Me, I'm a Vioxx and Advil guy. Nothing against that other stuff, but I'm from Missouri, the Show-Me State. When I see unequivocal proof that magnets work, I might give them a try.

Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson have something very much in common: We don't look particularly good in clothes. When you have short legs and an average-size torso, you tend to look a little squatty. I try to look presentable, but my body's not conducive to looking like a model.

If you think of yourself as unlucky, you'll have bad luck. There's no scientific explanation for it, but it's a cold, hard truth in golf. That's one reason why bad bounces never bothered me as much as they did some people. The second you start thinking of yourself as a victim, you've had it.

Years ago the thinking was that we'd never see a really good tall golfer because of the problems they would supposedly have with leverage. I changed my mind about that after having lunch with Ben Hogan in 1985. I asked Mr. Hogan if the tall golfer stood a chance, and he said, "By all means." He was emphatic, and it so happens that most of the best players today—Woods, Els, Mickelson and so on—are all over six feet tall. The day may come when we see someone 6-feet-8 or even taller come along and just dominate. I wouldn't bet against it.

It's enough to say I'm religious. What church I go to is none of your business.

I don't need to go into detail as to why I quit drinking, other than to say it was becoming similar to driving a car way too fast. You can drive fast and get away with it, but the fact is, you're putting yourself in danger. So I just quit.

My favorite movie of all time is "Charly." Cliff Robertson plays a man who is mentally handicapped. It was sad and funny, heartbreaking but uplifting. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is a close second.

I have lots of trophies and things, but my most prized possession is a dowry trunk that Byron Nelson made for my daughter, Meg. It's a beautiful piece of furniture, and to think Byron made it with his own hands makes it very special. Like I said, Meg has the dowry trunk. But it's still the most precious thing anyone ever gave me.

A good conversationalist has the ability to say the right thing at the right time. He also recognizes the wrong thing to say and the wrong time to say it. I'm pretty good at saying the right thing, but I have a knack for saying the wrong thing. It stems from trying to be honest. Honesty can just be too painful.

If I could choose one player to win a Ryder Cup singles match for me, I'd take Larry Nelson. That surprises you, but Larry had a great record [9-3-1 in three Ryder Cups] and more than that, he was fearless. Larry saw some fighting in Vietnam, and that may explain why he couldn't be intimidated.

Everybody has choked. In the 1974 U.S. Open, I kept hitting the ball right to right. My nerves wouldn't allow me to adjust. That's what choking is—being so nervous you can't find a swing or a putting stroke you can trust, and gaining momentum from it. Byron gave me the best cure for it. Walk slowly, talk slowly, deliberately do everything more slowly than you normally do. It has a way of settling you down.

As a young man I enjoyed being around older people more than younger ones. I thought they had so much more to offer. I don't hang around older people as often these days. They're getting harder to find. Remember, I'm 54.