He’s pure Polo when we meet at the Ouimet Scholarship Fund Banquet last month – white linen pants, green striped dress shirt with a matching tie and a blue blazer. The piercing eyes and gap toothed smile make a deeper impression. 'This is,' I tell myself, 'one of the most famous faces in the history of golf.'
Watson, turning 60 this September, was being honored for lifetime contributions to golf. And before he lectured, he recalled his student days.
“I was eight years old when I read Darwin’s book on (Francis) Ouimet,” he says.
Watson was influenced not only by good books, but by a good father.
“My dad prided himself on knowing every U.S. Open winner,” he says. “Even after his stroke he could remember them all the way back to 1895, 1913 was a cinch.
“Ouimet was a true amateur. And not only did he win the Open, but the U.S. Amateur twice, 17 years apart. Ouimet was also captain of the R&A, and you don’t become captain – especially an American – without a passion for the game.”
Watson’s own passion was stoked as a boy playing $1 Nassau at Kansas City Country Club with his father, Ray, a former U.S. Amateur quarterfinalist, his dad’s friend, Bob Willits, and the club pro Stan Thirsk.
By 14 he won the Kansas City Match Play. “It’s still my most cherished win,” Watson says. “It gave a young kid the dream he could be pretty good.”
The next year he played an exhibition with Arnold Palmer. “I tied him with 34 on the front side,” Watson remembers. “But he ended up with 68 and I shot 74.”
The following year on a cold day at Topeka Country Club he teed it up with Jack Nicklaus. “I saw him hit the high, soft cut and went right to work on a more upright swing with Mr. Thirsk.”
After attending Stanford, he turned pro and cashed his first check in 1971 for $1,032. “Man, this is the life,” he thought.
He could play, but admits he “didn’t know how to win.”
Watson was in great position to win at the U.S. Open in 1974 at Winged Foot, leading after three rounds. But he crashed with a Sunday 79. Dejected, he sat in the locker room.
“Tom, could I speak with you for 5 minutes?” asked a gentleman from Texas.
“Sure,” said Tom.
“Tom, I like the way you handled yourself,” the man explained. “You played a great round on Saturday. I think I can help you. If you’d like, you can come to my ranch in Roanoke.”
That’s how Byron Nelson became Tom Watson’s mentor.
“A finer man you will never meet,” says Watson. “I spent a lot of time with him. He believed in me.”
His three consecutive victories at the Byron Nelson in the late ‘70s don’t carry the historical weight of his eight majors, but they’re cherished victories, certainly.
Watson’s playing the Senior PGA Championship in Ohio this week, and plans to compete until he’s 70. “I still love to make the shot when it counts,” he says. “It’s the fundamental reason I’m out here.”
As this season moves toward July and the return of the British Open to Turnberry, Watson will no doubt recount for the press his “duel in the sun” with Jack, their Ali-Frazier encounter of 1977. On that blazing, dusty weekend Jack shot 65-66. Tom won with 65-65.
We discuss the clash, and there will be more on that at the appropriate time. I was curious about another matter.
Do you consider Tiger the greatest player of all time?
“I do,” he says. “And that’s Jack’s perspective too.”
“I was playing a round with Jack in the last couple years and said to him, ‘Jack, he’s the best, isn’t he?’ and Jack said, ‘Yeah, he is.’ “
“I actually felt a little embarrassed and then said ‘Jack, you weren’t too bad’ and with a smile he said, ‘I was pretty good.’”
Now Watson is emphatic. “Look, Tiger has dominated the pro game like no one’s ever done. Dominated it. He hasn’t broken the records yet but I fully expect him to.”
Did Jack face tougher competition?
“I don’t go there,” he says flatly.
“Phil’s won 36 times, Vijay nearly as much and Tiger’s taken ‘em all on and beaten the daylights out of ‘em. Come on. These guys are good.”
We talk for a bit about the enormous money in professional golf these days and it strikes a nerve with Watson.
“Money corrupts desire,” he says. “It corrupts passion. It takes a special person to ignore the money.”
“Losing to Tiger, to the best ever, you’re still making $500,000 and you might think that’s OK.”
“It was never OK with me.”
Byron Nelson surely knew that when he approached Tom Watson in that locker room at Winged Foot in 1974.