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Tom Watson: One More Title?

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

Long before he became the legendary Mr. One Putt, the King of British Opens and a two-time Masters champ, Tom Watson was just another freckle-faced, All-American boy, transfixed by baseball on the radio. Sitting in a small Kansas City apartment as an announcer called balls and strikes, no other words were needed to bind him to his beloved granddad Searcy Ridge. They'd just stare at that wooden-framed Philco, silently praying that Gus "Ozark Ike" Zernial, "Suitcase" Harry Simpson or one of the other 1950s Kansas City Athletics would launch a game-winning homer.

Doormats for the rest of the American League, the A's rarely worked any late-inning miracles, so

the young Watson's spirits often had to be bolstered with a bottle of soda pop and some comforting words from his grandpa. Ridge's exhortations were laced with tales of Ruth, Cobb and other myth-ical heroes, how they courageously overcame adversity and never whined or made excuses in defeat. These were important notions that instilled in the boy the sense that competition was governed by immutable ethics, that winners with the "right stuff" honored a higher set of rules.

Yet character-building fables, juxtaposed with memories of the A's striking out in clutch situations, weren't the only legacy the future five-time British Open winner would carry with him into adulthood. There was also the unforgettable sweet smell of that screened, third-floor apartment, the robust aromas from Ridge's White Owl cigars that unfailingly wafted through those cozy quarters during every game.

"One of my favorite times when growing up was visiting my grandfather, listening to a ballgame's special rhythms, and vicariously savoring one of his White Owls," recalls the 49-year-old Watson, who except for a few flecks of gray still looks like the boyish wunderkind who outdueled the immortal Jack Nicklaus to win the 1977 Masters.

Now the dream is one more Grand Slam win, completing his portfolio of "majors" by finally winning a PGA Championship. Claiming that prize won't be easy, for Tiger Woods, Justin Leonard and a new legion of young guns stands in his way. Yet if Watson steadies his off-again, on-again putting stroke and somehow manages to make good on his claim that "I know I have one more big win in me," he'll undoubtedly salute his slowing of time by lighting a cigar, looking skyward and paying tribute to the man who first took him down tobacco road.

"Yeah, that was Grandpa, he just loved the A's and cigars, and when I got older, maybe 11 or 12, I had to give smoking a try," continues Watson, chuckling as he sips coffee in the clubhouse on a recent PGA Tour stop. "One evening I waited for my parents to leave the house, and while watching the Friday night fights, I took a Roi-Tan from my dad's humidor. But I must admit, smelling my grandfather's cigars was a whole lot better, for actually smoking one of those Roi-Tans wasn't so sweet. I immediately turned green."

Though we've all committed youthful follies, it's hard to picture a puckish Tom Watson, mischievously trying to pull a fast one on anyone. Steeped in conservative Midwestern values and long chided for his austere, flinty-eyed demeanor on the golf course, Watson has been described by noted course designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. as "all serious, never kidding around, Tom plays like he's in a cathedral." The staunchly principled Watson has even felt compelled to resign from a discriminatory Kansas City club and to attack such funnymen as Bill Murray and Gary McCord for conduct that he felt was detrimental to the game. That humorless, moral absolutism has made him an anachronism in this era of over-indulged Latrell Sprewells. He is one of those rare athletes who refuses to genuflect before the almighty dollar.

"Right now I don't have a deal with a clubmaker; I'll only endorse clubs I can really play with," says Watson. "You have to have principles, you have to take positions. When I grew up, golf was a refuge filled with integrity. But sports in general has lost its code of honor. Guys don't listen to their coaches, they don't try their hardest--and that bothers me. Ethics and honor are lacking today."

But even if Watson is golf's high-minded equivalent of Cal Ripken Jr., if he is the stand-up guy that Ben Crenshaw calls "a total gentleman who's ever honoring the game's greatest traditions," there are those times when he will bend the rules. Or will at least find a little wriggle room to satisfy a passion that was nurtured by those languid afternoons with his White Owl-puffing mentor.

"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.

Then came what many golf aficionados call The Miracle. Standing ankle-deep in the rough, with the winds buffeting his slight torso, Watson hit a very high chip shot that seemed to have enough momentum to roll six to eight feet past the cup. Yet the ball broke right, straight into the cup. The crowd roared, and Watson went on to birdie the 18th and take his long-sought U.S. Open crown.

"Sure, that Open stands out as one of my most satisfying triumphs; I played great golf and defeated the greatest player in the game," says Watson. "Then I had to use my head to beat Jack. He was the best thinker on the course who ever came down the pike. He'd play away from hazards, avoid shots which could cost him a tournament, and to beat him at Pebble Beach or at Turnberry [the 1977 British Open], I also had to think. For sure, winning the Open was my most important win overall."

That victory was so fulfilling that Watson returned to Pebble Beach a few months later to stage his own version of Play It Again, Sam. After enjoying a celebratory dinner with friends Robert Trent Jones Jr., former U.S. Golf Association president Sandy Tatum, and Hank Ketchum, the cartoonist who created "Dennis the Menace," he suddenly left the restaurant, returned with a few clubs and balls, and proposed a midnight trip back to the 17th hole.

"I said, 'Gentlemen, let's go try The Shot,'" Watson says with a laugh, apparently still amused by his out-of-character antics. "So there we go, out to the course in the dark of night. It wasn't easy finding the exact spot, but what finally happens? I sculled balls over the green."

The incident might dramatize the Huck Finn, fun-loving side of Watson's personality. But nothing was humorous about his play a few years after that glorious '82 Open triumph.

While winning three times in 1984 and once in '87,Watson was no longer the dominant player who had putted his way to 21 triumphs from 1978 to 1982 (and 68 Top Ten finishes). He'd occasionally sink an unlikely putt and at times his ball-striking was so magnificent, observers likened him to the "Watson of old." Yet tentative on the greens and continually losing his confidence, he faded from the leaderboard for nearly a decade. Then he seemed like just another vulnerable past-tense champion, struggling to find himself and his putting stroke.

"Missing so many four- and five-footers to lose tournaments, it just seemed my putting went topsy-turvy on me for 10 years," rues Watson. During this stretch he blew the last-round lead in the 1994 British Open with two consecutive double bogeys, and later admitted, "This was my most discouraging moment. My putter felt like an anvil."

There were other disasters. Missing two three-footers at the 1987 U.S. Open, he lost by only one stroke to Scott Simpson. In 1994 at Pebble Beach, he squandered the lead by three-putting several times.

Now Watson laments, "The bittersweet part is that I started to hit the ball better in the '90s, but my putting was bad, real bad. I got nervous over the short putts and I wasn't making good strokes. It wasn't the yips. My strokes were just going inside the line too much. I kept pushing the putt to the right of the hole. Then I'd fight against that, try to make the ball go to the left, and since I wasn't keeping my head down, I didn't penetrate, accelerate through the ball at impact. It was a difficult time, very difficult. I still haven't figured out what kept me going. Maybe I'm just hardheaded."

Though most players would have tried a cross-handed grip, a long putter or just about anything to escape the throes of that slump, Watson was too proud, as some Tour observers suggested, to go the gimmick route. Obsessed with his mechanics, he stubbornly tried to refine his swing path and setup, ever believing that "golf is a game where you have to take personal responsibility. Forget the excuses. You just can't blame a poorly hit shot on anything but yourself." As he passionately told Sports Illustrated's John Garrity, "I'm stubborn in the sense that I think I can make it work. I will make it work." He still struggled, for years, and the once-anointed Mr. One Putt eventually gave himself a new nickname, "Hammer-mitts."

In the 1990s, however, Watson wasn't troubled only by a shaky putter. He found himself at the center of several controversies, most notably the headline-grabbing brouhaha that surrounded his 1990 resignation from the Kansas City Country Club. Angering his father, Ray, and many of his boyhood golfing pals, Watson felt it was "archaic" for his ancestral club to deny membership to one of his Jewish friends, H&R Block founder Henry Bloch. Married to a Jewish woman, Watson had a personal stake in the matter. But the resignation, which caused a long rift with his father even while prompting a preponderance of support mail, also cut to the core of Watson's belief system, his absolutist view of right and wrong.

While refusing to call his actions "heroic," Watson insists that "certain things are just a given, unquestionably right, and that's when you have to take a stand. Living your life with zero risk is intolerable. It's wrong not to take responsibility, to make excuses. There are just times when you have to show character by standing up and being true to your principles."

After Watson's protests the club ultimately admitted more minority members. He then rejoined the club, feeling "it was time for healing," and also patched up his differences with his father. Now the two men occasionally play golf together, and while Watson says "we're close again," his face looks pained, as though the repercussions from the affair are still being felt.

Though Watson doesn't like to talk about the country club incident and how it split his family, he's never shied away from speaking out, especially when he felt the sanctity of the game had to be protected.

Take, for example, his 1993 battle with comic Bill Murray. At the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the Caddyshack star delighted the crowd by plucking an elderly onlooker from the gallery and dancing with her in a bunker. Watson strongly objected to these shenanigans. Although other pros and newspapers were quick to call him "a stuffed shirt," Watson wasn't deterred from taking other unpopular stances.

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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