PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club


Tom Watson's Last Hurrah

By Tom Callahan Photos by Dom Furore
September 15, 2014

It's a familiar dream: falling, falling, jerking awake, sweating, thankful to be on a mattress and not a sidewalk.

"I used to have a recurring dream of falling," Tom Watson says. "Hasn't everybody? I don't anymore. I still dream of golf, though. Of the ball rolling all the way to the hole, then rolling all the way back to me. Or I'm being closed in by something and can't swing. Or it's too dark. I've been dreaming about the Ryder Cup recently, but I can never remember what happened. Probably, because we're having this conversation, I'll dream about it again tonight."

To his father's regular foursome in Kansas City, he was "Fly," named for the comic-strip character Flytrap Finnegan of the Toonerville Trolley, "the World's Worst Caddie." You see, Finnegan never shut up, and Tommy spoke hardly a word.

Ray Watson (an insurance broker), Bob Willits and the others put up $4,500 apiece to stake the young dreamer to a shot at the tour, and after a break-even year or so, dividends started rolling in. "Fly," Willits exclaimed, "is better than General Motors!"

Before he left Kansas City, Watson asked several local pros "one simple question. What could I do on tour to make myself a better golfer? They all told me the same thing: 'Play with or watch the best players.' So I did. I followed Jack, Trevino. But mostly Jack. I just concentrated on Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack. Great talent. But do you want to know the most important thing I learned from Nicklaus? He prepared better than anybody else—ever. Major championships, especially. And he knew it. He took strength from it."

Of course, Tom never really left Kansas City, a metropolis that can feel like a small town. Under the heading "Remembrances," obituaries in the Kansas City Star begin "James Raleigh Bennett (J.R.), 90 years old, went to live with the Lord ... " or "Drew B. Bicknell was called back to heaven suddenly at the age of 32... " Politically more Southern than Midwestern, the state of Missouri is as reliably red as Tiger Woods' Sunday tunic, and Watson fits in perfectly.

Asked what drawbacks there have been for a cold-climate pro who didn't move to Florida or California, he sounds offended by the question. "None, absolutely none, zero," he says. "Why would anyone want to move away from their friends and family? I read somewhere that the most stressful event in a person's life is losing a mate. And the second-most stressful is moving.

"I could always go away to practice, but I practiced a lot here, sometimes in freezing temperatures. We had a bunch of guys who played in any type of weather. I always had games. It was a lot of fun. You learn how to become a bad-weather player, and I hunted in conditions a lot worse."

Watson didn't start out playing for history. "I played for money," he says flatly. "To make the top 60. To not have to Monday- qualify anymore. To stop being a rabbit." Before he could get there, he wiped out spectacularly in a couple of U.S. Opens. ("Trevino is right. Everybody feels pressure.") At the scene of the Winged Foot crash in 1974, Byron Nelson appeared by his side like Merlin.

What drew Nelson to Tom? "I liked his freckle-faced grin," Byron said.

"Hating to lose," Watson says, "is what taught me how to win. All those failures, chokes, early in my career—I despised that feeling so much, I didn't want to feel it anymore."

That's when he became Huckleberry Dillinger.

For at least half a decade, Watson was the clear No. 1 golfer in the world, and for a period after that, he stood behind only Severiano Ballesteros. Four times Nicklaus finished second to Watson in major championships, highlighted by Tom's chip-in at Pebble Beach and the weekend 65-65 he pitched against Jack's 65-66 at Turnberry. Watson never finished second to Nicklaus in a major.

Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack. Tom learned his lesson well.

Most descriptively, he won five Open Championships and, but for the Road Hole wall and Ballesteros, would have won six (and, 25 years later, perhaps another). Missing only St. Andrews from the full Scottish kilt, Watson was more than embraced by the Scots; he was adopted.

It wasn't just that he won, it was the way he played the game, starting with his pace of play—their same no-nonsense rhythm and dispatch. It was the old-world respect he showed himself and everyone else. Scotland even got a smile out of that silly little bonnet he wore at Carnoustie.

"What helped build the relationship, I think," he says, "was going over there early and playing throughout the British Isles. That was Sandy Tatum's idea. 'You know, Watson [said his great old friend, looking and sounding like Sherlock Holmes], we need to play some links courses that don't hold the Open Championship.' I told him, 'You're on, but here's the deal: When you make the arrangements, don't use my name. So there won't be any hoopla.' "

By the way, Tatum is a silver-haired patrician nearly 30 years Watson's senior, a lawyer, a Rhodes Scholar, a past president of the United States Golf Association, and, like Tom, once the star of the Stanford golf team.

Watson had been missing the beauty of an empty course. The secretary at Ballybunion, their first stop in Ireland, promised to keep it quiet, but things happen.

"We flew into Shannon," Tom says, "and took the northern route, the ferry, to Ballybunion. When we got back into the car to drive off the boat, Sandy was chuckling. 'I just had a talk with a 14-year-old boy from Belfast,' he said. 'I asked him where he was headed, and he explained, "I'm going to Ballybunion to watch Tom Watson play golf. It's in the newspaper." ' "

As Watson recalls, it was "a glorious day, light breezes. We came around the bend of the town, past the cemetery, and there's the parking lot up ahead, chock-o-block with cars, and there's the course beyond it, teeming with people. The whole town, it seemed. It was quite a celebration, is what it was. At the 15th tee, the par 3, we stopped and had a toast. Some Irish whiskey. And I proceeded to hit a 1-iron about two feet from the hole. I'll never forget that sound."

His capacity for enjoying it, that's what the Brits and the Irish are talking about.

During the same trip, Tatum and Watson were mobbed similarly at Royal Dornoch in Scotland, but following the post-round festivities, a pint or two and some hors d'oeuvres, Tom looked out the window. "A storm had just come up," he says. "The rain was pelting the glass. I whispered, 'Sandy, let's sneak out alone and play a second round.' He whispered back, 'Book it. I'll organize the caddies.'

"It was just the four of us, the caddies, Sandy and me at Royal Dornoch in the rain. You know, in all the rounds we've played together, that's the only time Tatum ever beat me. With a couple of holes to go, I looked over at him and said, 'Sandy, I don't think I've ever had more fun playing golf than on this golf course in these conditions with you.' "


Watson's first Ryder Cup took him by surprise. He hadn't played in a Walker Cup and knew little of anthems or flags. But U.S. captain Dow Finsterwald's address at the opening ceremonies—this was 1977—stirred him. Tom played in four Cups, losing none (3-0-1), missing one by the difference between a par and a bogey on the last hole at the PGA Championship, and retiring from another at 3 a.m. on a Thursday when his first child was born.

Coming to the '90s, Tom commissioned brother-in-law and friend Chuck Rubin (no longer his brother-in-law, still his friend) to tell the PGA of America people he'd be interested in captaining if they would be interested in him." 'But only if it's away,' I told Chuck. 'Not on U.S. soil.' I just thought there might be some weight to me being the captain over there."

He directed the '93 team to a 15-13 victory at The Belfry in England, the last time America won a Ryder Cup on the road. Roy Williams, the basketball coach, let Watson in on a couple of satisfactions that can attend away games: first, making the home crowds go silent; then, watching them leaving the arenas early.

"Roy also warned me that, five minutes in, game plans tend to go out the window. Boy, was he right. Payne Stewart and Paul Azinger were my stud team, my go-to guys. They had been lighting it up in the practice rounds, making 10 or 12 birdies. But then came the monkey wrench: a three-hour fog delay. Waiting it out, I could see Payne's and Paul's eyes getting bigger and bigger as they grew tighter and tighter. There wasn't a thing I could do about it. And they went out and got beat, 7 and 5. Five minutes in, as Roy said, you better be ready to throw out all your plans and coach by the seat of your pants."


The Yanks have lost seven of the past nine Cups. "And, quite frankly," said Ted Bishop, president of the PGA of America, "I know I speak for a lot of people when I say we are just really tired of losing the Ryder Cup." So, he reached out, and back, for Watson. As Seve had made the Cup a competition, maybe Tom could make the competition two-sided.

"When Bishop telephoned me," Watson says, "I told him, 'Ted, I've been waiting for this call for almost 20 years.'"

They weren't all happy years. A microscopic machine part had gone blooey in his swing, like the $1.89 transistor that sabotages the satellite. His putting stroke shook like a tambourine. He was drinking beyond his usual requirements.

"For nine solid years, I hated golf," Tom says. "Stan Thirsk [his original teaching pro] said, 'You're really hating it now, aren't you?' 'I hate it, I hate it, I hate it,' I said. 'Keep trying to solve it,' he told me, 'the correct way. The worm will turn.' " He did, and it did.

At the unheard of age of 59, at Turnberry again, Watson stood in the final pairing in the middle of the 72nd fairway requiring only a par 4 for his sixth Open Championship. A hundred-and-eighty-seven yards away, he swung an 8-iron that felt just like the last full shot he hit all but dead against Nicklaus in 1977. But this time the ball rolled through the green. From a little behind and a little below, Tom whisked an average approach putt and then missed an abysmal eight-footer. Understandably, he had nothing left to play off with against Stewart Cink.

The day before, in the pressroom, Tom had used the word "spirituality." "Saturday was a day of no pressure," he says now. "A spiritual day on the golf course. Golf in the Kingdom. But, as much as it tore my guts out at the time, Sunday is a day I can put on the good side of the ledger now. It was unique and enjoyable to be there again at such a late stage in my career. I never gave up on myself as far as being able to compete with the kids on certain courses. Not at Augusta with all its forced carries. But I was home at Turnberry."

The "kids" ready to play for him now have been teleporting him back to the beginning. "Yeah," he says, "I've been getting a vicarious pleasure being around these youngsters, I sure have. I'm remembering the feeling, the enthusiasm, the joy, the frustration. I had forgotten some of it. Being around the likes of Walker, Spieth and Fowler, my fuse is lit again."

On Jimmy Walker: "I played with him at Augusta. Very impressive. Great attitude. At the mention of the Ryder Cup, he was like a kid in the candy store. He's into astronomy, you know. The first book I ever read was on astronomy."

On Jordan Spieth: "We were paired together the first two rounds of the Heritage. He didn't play very well, but he scored well, which is a critical lesson for a young player. How do you turn a poor round into an acceptable round to stay in close enough touch?

"There's been a lot of pressure on Jordan. Too much pressure. But he's dealt with it very well. He's a good kid with a great attitude on the golf course. He gets upset when he hits a bad shot, just like you're supposed to. He doesn't hide it. That's the fire you want in a golfer. And talk about a wonderful bunker player. Awesome."

On Rickie Fowler: "I've always liked Rickie as a person, and I'm liking him more and more as a player. I love what Butch Harmon has been doing with him. I'll tell you something else, I'm impressed by how Rickie handles bad weather."


__From left, four of Watson's major wins: Carnoustie in 1975; With Raymond Floyd at Augusta National in 1977; With Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977; With Seve Ballesteros at the Masters in 1981.

Photography: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images, Augusta National/Getty Images, Popperfoto/Getty Images, Phil Sheldon/Popperfoto/Getty Images


At The Belfry, Watson delivered a rendition of Teddy Roosevelt's "those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat" speech. But this time Tom might be a little more direct:

"We're not going to Gleneagles to have a nice time. We're going there to bring back the Ryder Cup. Win at all costs, basically. We're taking charge. I want players who hate losing as much as I do. No, more than I do. And I think I've got them. All they need to know about me is I'm all in for them. I'm just the stage manager. There's your mark. Hit your mark. Now make the audience applaud. That's the stage manager's job."

Woods' involvement was problematic throughout his spasmodic summer, as he returned, relapsed, and returned again from back miseries. Eventually, he withdrew. In mid-June, sitting in a conference room at his office, Watson had said, "There's no possibility if Tiger's healthy and playing well that I wouldn't pick him. Let me ask you a question. Who wouldn't want Tiger Woods on the Ryder Cup team? He brings a gravitas."

But not a fear factor anymore.

"Yeah, he does. Not as great, but a fear factor still, and nobody can deny the fact that he's the best competitor."

Nobody was more judgmental about Woods' club throwing and profane gracelessness than Watson. Nobody has been more judgmental than Watson period.

But, speaking generally, Tom says now, "I've criticized people and their actions. My own actions. But I'm optimistic about people. Some say human beings are intrinsically bad and have to be taught to be good, but I don't believe that. I think deep down we all want to live with respect for each other, and the only way to do that is the golden rule."

After a pause that speaks to something even harder than golf, that takes even longer to learn, he says softly, "None of us is perfect."

Last May, Woods received the best compliment of his life when ex-wife Elin Nordegren said, "He's a great father." If Sam, 7, and Charlie, 5, are teaching Tiger that Earl wasn't the world-champion parent after all, maybe a corner has been turned.

"Nicklaus and I were watching Tiger play on TV," Tom says. "I can't remember where it was. I think it was at the Senior Skins Game. So we were in Hawaii. I said, 'Bear, he's the best, isn't he?' Jack said, 'Yeah, he's the best.' "

Doesn't that simple exchange make all the tabulations of major tournaments moot?

Watson's vice captains are Steve Stricker (the only contemporary player, who has been asked to bring his sticks, just in case), Raymond Floyd and Andy North. Floyd still has that look in his eye that could bore a hole in a vault. North is known for winning two U.S. Opens and little else. But it's not fair. He was a hell of a competitor who led the league in injuries, one of the best up-and-downers who ever lived.

"Great bunker player," Watson says, "great putter, wonderful touch. He could launch it. He could hit shots. Andy brings me a lot of street cred, because he's been around these young players as an ESPN reporter. He has a relationship with them."

Neil Oxman will handle the caddies. "Caddies give you the straight skinny," Tom says. "I call Ox my consigliere. Herb Stevens, a former caddie [the Skiing Weatherman in Boston], is my go-to meteorologist. The average temperature at that time of year is 56 degrees high, 46 degrees low. The coldest it's ever been on the opening date is 29, the warmest 72. Herb tells me there's a trough that might bring warmer and wetter conditions, but the model could still change."

Just turning 65, Watson still has that gap-toothed grin that delighted Byron Nelson. Tom's arms are still body parts off a larger man. But he is as sun-dried now as an apricot, and the back of his neck shows why French Foreign Legionnaires kept their flaps down in the desert.

Does this feel like a last hurrah?

"Yeah, it does," he says. "Sure. There's always an end to the road somewhere. The Ryder Cup is a wonderful opportunity for me, and an honor most of all. I'm grateful."

A last hurrah that opens with the Ryder Cup. An end to the road that crosses the Swilcan Bridge. Even before Watson's Sunday 68 at Liverpool, the R&A had already extended his Open eligibility a year so he could go out where every great golfer should, St. Andrews. People in golf have been worried lately that the game is too hard and takes too long to play. They are trying to think of ways to abbreviate golf and make it easier, like cups the size of manhole covers.

"It's like that movie—what was that movie?—where they're talking about opera," Watson says. "If you go to the opera and don't instantly love it, you might come to like it, appreciate it, even enjoy it. But you'll never love it. I think of golf the same way. "I had a man who gave me that love. My father. He had a passion to do it right. He wanted me to succeed, but he wanted me to do it right. Start with the Vs [of your grip] pointing to the right shoulder, finish with your belly button toward the target, and keep your head still."

Is that so hard?

"Like we were saying, certain golfers play the game with a passion that absolutely has a spiritual content. First and foremost, the man who comes to my mind is Tatum, [now 94]. I still tease him about hitting the dead solid perfect 2-iron. 'Have you hit one this year, Sandy?' He still comes back with something Alistair Cooke wrote him in a letter. 'Horribly as I play, I will never quit. I WILL NEVER SURRENDER!' "

Does Watson have a bucket list?

"I don't know if I'll ever get it done," he says, "but Sandy has told me, when he was at Oxford, there were so many little courses dotting the coasts of the U.K. that you never hear of. You go to these small coastal towns and they all have a golf course, a linksland. I'd like to play them."

Leave his name out of the paper, so there won't be any hoopla.


__From left: Holing out at 17 At Pebble Beach in 1982; The Ryder Cup at the Belfry in 1989; Captaining the U.S. Team at the Belfry in 1993; Coming up just short in the Open at Turnberry in 2009.

Photography: Richard Mackson/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images, Bob Martin/Allsport, Bob Thomas/Getty Images, J.D. Cuban