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Tom Watson: One More Title?

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

(continued from page 1)

Later that year, while serving as the captain of the American Ryder Cup squad, Watson ignited another flap when he refused to autograph a menu for Sam Torrance, a member of the European team. The gamesmanship, which was quickly dubbed "Menu-gate" by British tabloids, subjected Watson to another barrage of criticism. Nevertheless he masterfully handled his diverse group of competing egos and talents and led the Americans to their last victory in this international event.

"That was my first Ryder Cup, and Tom, who's obviously one of the greatest players in history, did a whole lot to make it a memorable experience for me," says Davis Love III, who was profiled in the August 1997 issue of Cigar Aficionado. "We've gone on to trade cigars with one another, to go hunting and fishing together. We have a lot of special camaraderie; for one thing about Tom, you can always count on him to come up with some really good [smokes]."

Soon after returning from the Ryder Cup, Watson was again annoyed by one of golf's funnymen, CBS broadcaster Gary McCord. At the 1994 AT&T tourney, the always-irreverent announcer angered Watson by using such terms as "bikini wax" and "body bags" on TV. Finding the remarks inappropriate, he sent CBS golf producer Frank Chirkinian a letter, urging him to "get rid of [McCord], now." In recalling the incident today, Watson says, "McCord was out of line, just way out of line with his comments. I made my disagreements known to his boss privately. But he made my private letter public. He was a real jerk about it." Watson now says that "Gary does a good job commentating. He had to be controversial to make a name for himself, and he really does know the game."

During these sensationalized confrontations, Watson's putting troubles worsened. He admitted in 1993, "I have a hard time seeing the line." He struggled so often to make a short putt, that it became increasingly painful to watch him laboring on the greens, particularly when he'd miss a three-footer and lumber off to the next hole, his face clenched in agony.

Describing his problems in a 1993 Golf Digest interview, he said, "When I was playing well, I would take two practice strokes and look at the hole twice, and then immediately hit the putt. Now I look at the hole two or three times, then look at the ball, then back to the hole, then look at the ball--so my actual routine is not as sure, not the same every time. That comes from a lack of confidence."

His Tour earnings reflected that shakiness. In 1994, he won only $380,378 and ranked 46th on the money list (with a mere four Top Ten finishes). He struggled even more in '95 and fell to 58th place, earning just $321,000.

But never complaining, and tirelessly working with teacher Stan Thirsk and "surrogate father" Byron Nelson, Watson found the touch in the 1996 Memorial Tournament. Shaking off a last-round challenge from David Duval by combining wondrous iron shots with sure-handed putting, he won for the first time in nine years.

"That one really felt good," says Watson, smiling. "During my bad stretch it was gimmick of the week, gimmick of the month when it came to my swing and rhythm. I was looking for keys, secrets to perfection, the Holy Grail. Then finally the light bulb went on. I ironed out a few basics and golf became fun again. A lot of fun."

Now calling his game "better than average," Watson is also confident that his putting woes are behind him--that after winning this year's Colonial, finishing second in the Hawaiian Open, sharing the runner-up spot in the Phoenix Open, and tying for the lead in the rain-suspended AT&T, he's emotionally ready to take on the Tour's newest powers.

"My putting has given me a big lift. I'm getting some real good feedback right now. Though I haven't heard the nickname One Putt in a long time, I'm shooting to get that name back. I made a few [putting] adjustments before the Tour started this year, for my arms and shoulders weren't moving in unison. And the putter head would slow down; I wasn't following through. Now I am, and the balls are starting to go more on line. So anything's possible now. I feel good, real good. I'm making putts."

Flushed with hope and resolve, Watson, for now at least, is reminiscent of that golden-haired Kansas City youth who went mano-a-mano with the almighty Jack. Of course, confidence and enthusiasm alone won't guarantee him a shot at another major, given today's remarkable array of young talent such as Woods, Leonard, Duval, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson, many of whom are revolutionizing the game with their 300-yard drives. That's a trend that concerns Watson, the unabashed traditionalist, who declares, "Whether it's changing the ball or the equipment, something has to be done to preserve the shot-making values of the past."

As far as the future goes, Watson has a number of options available: an eventual stint on the Senior Tour, maybe some good-ol'-boy camaraderie in the broadcast booth ("I don't know if I'm cut out for TV, yet I do love talking about strategy") or course design work.

About the latter he says, "It's an extension of the dreams I had as a kid. Ever since grade school I've been excited by drawing impossible designs, picturing golf courses on paper," says Watson, who collaborated with Sandy Tatum and Jones Jr. in the design of the Spanish Bay golf links on California's Monterey peninsula.

Four Watson-designed courses are already open in Japan and he is now working on two U.S. projects, one on Kiawah Island in South Carolina, the other near his Kansas City home. "I enjoy formulating ideas and coming up with designs that fit what the land gives you. These two sites are vastly different. While the Kansas City tract is rolling with lots of elevation changes, at Kiawah, with all its marshes and lowlands, I'll have the opportunity to recreate a real links-styled course. To be an artist and to create a really beautiful canvas."

Also dedicated to making golf more accessible to children, Watson regularly stages junior golf exhibitions and donated his architectural services when a Kansas City foundation built a golf academy for youngsters. The honorary chairman of the Tour's First Tee program, which promotes the building of affordable golf courses for children, Watson argues, "We need to build 200 courses for young people. Golf, in general, has become much too expensive. Tour players have to meet this challenge, take some respon-sibility and now give something back to the game. We have a duty and an obligation to get personally involved."

Regardless of his behind-the-scenes accomplishments, it will be Watson's performances on the golf course that will earn him his place in the game's history. "I just want to be remembered as a hell of a player, a guy who cared about the game and treated people with respect," he says. "That I was honest and fair."

Yet this isn't the time to total his final scorecard. Not with him spending hours on the practice range, tirelessly searching for perfection, and at day's end, still being a work in progress.

"I still have a whole lot to learn about the game," emphasizes Watson, "and if I could talk shop with any of golf's immortals, it would be with the great Bobby Jones. I'm sure he had a cigar or two in his life. So I'd like to enjoy a cigar with him and listen to his tales, insights and recollections of winning the 1930 Grand Slam. Those wins inspired me as a boy, particularly the way he conducted himself. While playing with fire, he was a real gentleman--with manners, etiquette--and that's the way every game should be played. With a code of honor." *

Florida-based writer Edward Kiersh is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.


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