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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.

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