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Tom Watson: One More Title?

Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

(continued from page 1)

"Always associating cigars with the warmth of my granddad's place, I kept smoking through college, and when finally getting to the British Open, those fancy London tobacco shops were a whole new world of forbidden fruit," recalls Watson, cheerfully. "I discovered Montecristos, 2s, 3s and 4s. While these Cubans were once my favorites, I've gotten Cohiba Robustos in the Bahamas, Partagas 898s in South America, and now I have a nice collection of Havanas. Yet even though I've been burned with bogus shipments of Havanas, I still favor a strong-tasting Cuban cigar, especially my old favorite, an H. Upmann Magnum 46."

Premium smokes, along with commercial ties to Polo golfwear, two Masters green jackets and $9 million in career earnings, are the bounty of winning 34 PGA Tour events. Now in golf's august pantheon alongside Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones, John Ball, Arnold Palmer, Walter Hagen and Gary Player, men who have won at least eight major championships, Watson can leisurely hopscotch around the world to play golf with U.S. presidents and Japanese masseuses, to go bird hunting, and to pursue the perfect cigar.

"Though I'm not a George Burns, smoking all the time, I do like to experiment, to try out different cigars, and to see what goes best with a fine glass of Port," says Watson. "Other pros will give me cigars, ask me to sample them, and that's helped me discover that I like torpedos, robustos and even an occasional Davidoff mini. While all these cigars are great after dinner, I enjoy them the most when I'm outdoors, walking the raw land, and watching a dog go to point when I'm quail hunting. Then you're at peace, free, at least until you walk into a covey of quail, as that can scare the living daylights out of you."

If Watson has the same touch with a rifle as he does with his long irons, that spells trouble for birddom. For most experts now agree he's striking the ball like the vintage Watson, the shy, long-haired Stanford University grad who came up in the early '70s hitting pinpoint shots and seeming as bland as the Kansas prairie. Though he smoked sugary-tasting Swisher Sweets and dazzled crowds with his deft putting stroke, newspapermen of the time mercilessly compared him to a country bumpkin, as golf historian Herbert Warren Wind did when he described Watson as "sucking on a stem of grass as he heads for the fishing hole with a pole over his shoulder."

The criticism stung, and it was easy for Watson to again feel as he had at Stanford during the Vietnam War days "like a fish out of water." Even while he jokingly calls Stanford "a golf powerhouse" now that Tiger Woods has left its campus for zillions of dollars, he quickly turns sullen, saying, "I was very disappointed there. It became so radicalized, so tense. I expected attitudes to be more open to different opinions, yet the radical professors demanded that you toe their ideological line. It was just like today: the thought police and smoking. If you don't do it a certain way, there's censure and a stab at man's freedom."

Watson may be a fan of Rush Limbaugh, but in the 1970s, when he won the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am twice, three Byron Nelson Golf Classics, the Tournament of Champions and 12 other events, there was nothing conservative about his scrappy playing style. Not one to "lay up," or to play holes safely during those early years, he consistently drove the ball "crookedly" and far. This would often land him in trouble. But ever the masterful Houdini, he'd escape perilous lies with sure-handed chip shots or stunningly save par by making 20-, 30- even 40-foot putts.

He learned to win chiefly by "hating to lose." Following the lead of Sam Snead, who also needed to be "cool-mad" to perform heroically, the iron-willed Watson told Golf Digest a few years ago that "anger, whatever way it manifests itself"--be it toward a waitress in the morning or toward himself for not fulfilling expect-ations--fired his competitive juices. That "killer" approach made him seem standoffish, a cheerless, always-focused stoic who played as if the game was his sacred trust. As Jack Nicklaus once said, "I always felt as if Tom played with blinders on."

Such uncompromising resolve still characterizes Watson today. Still intent on "hitting the perfect golf shot at the right time," he fervently believes "I can beat the young kids out here. I'm still a competitor, and while I might be hard on myself, I still want to play under pressure. I want those opportunities to prove myself. For I still think I can steal a tournament here and there." He did just that this past May, when he shot a 15-under 265 in Fort Worth, Texas, to defeat Jim Furyk by two strokes and capture the Colonial--his first title in two years and only his second since 1987.

No matter how many victories he may still have left in him, Watson will always be remembered for The Shot. Punctuating one of the most dramatic finishes in golf history, his still-fabled masterstroke came during his memorable 1982 U.S. Open battle against Jack Nicklaus at Pebble Beach. The two men had traded brilliant shots all day, and as Watson approached the 17th hole, a ticklish par 3 hugging the coastline, he was tied with the Golden Bear for the lead.

"This was the tournament I wanted to win the most, our national championship," recollects Watson. But it seemed as if the dream would be denied, for after taking out a 2-iron, he hooked the ball into thick fescue grasses on a severe downslope, and was staring straight at a disastrous bogey.

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