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Tom Watson: One More Title?

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

(continued from page 3)

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."

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