It’s a golf writer’s equivalent to booing Santa Claus or kicking puppies, but I was fully prepared to bite the bullet and shoulder all criticism for my opinion.
I was going to rip Tom Watson.
Well, not Tom, exactly. I mean, it’s difficult to pick on a 61-year-old at his peak of popularity not only for the way he seems to contend at the Open Championship every year, but for how he treats his fans, how he deals with the media and how he generally comports himself on a week-to-week basis.
No, I’ve got no beef with Watson. I marvel at his accomplishments – the eight major championships and six senior major titles among them – like everyone else. I’ve spoken with him enough to times to know his words are genuine. The man owns a precise manner of making his feelings known without pushing those views upon anyone else.
Instead, I was going to chastise him for his decision-making – this week’s decision, in particular. That’s because rather than compete in the upcoming U.S. Senior Open, he chose to play in the second edition of the PGA Tour’s Greenbrier Classic.
Here are the facts: Though there is a glut of senior majors – five of ‘em, at last count – the Senior Open may be the most prestigious of all. While he’s never missed the cut in 11 tries and owns six career top-five finishes – including a solo second at this week’s host venue Inverness back in 2003 – the hardware has eluded Watson every year since turning 50.
For a guy who plays his best golf in majors, this may be his last – and best – chance to win this one.
The Greenbrier hardly has such stature. In its inaugural turn on the schedule last year, Stuart Appleby posted a final-round 59 to prevail in what had become a festival of birdies for four sun-drenched West Virginia days.
Watson, though, is the pro emeritus for the resort, having taken over that role after native son Sam Snead passed away. While there may not be any appearance fees on the PGA Tour, there certainly are sponsorship incentives – and this decision to compete in his first non-major since 2007 reeked of a player choosing potential monetary gain over the honor of playing in one of his country’s national championships.
So yes, I was all prepared to reprimand Tom Watson. Until I heard his reasoning behind the decision.
“I didn't play in the first Greenbrier Classic last year, because it conflicted with the U.S. Senior Open, as it does this year,” Watson said during a Tuesday news conference. “I was conflicted again about coming here, and Jim [Justice, owner of the resort] gave me a call earlier in the year and asked if I would play and I said, ‘Sure, Jim. It's not a question I'll play. Without batting an eye.’”
Then things changed – or at least, they would have changed if this scenario had happened to another player.
Watson won the Senior PGA Championship, finished T-22 against the flatbellies at Royal St. George’s and shared third place at last week’s Senior British Open.
Most other players – any other player – would be issuing a mea culpa for the late turn of events. ”I know I said I’d play your event. I really wish I could. But doggone it, I’m just playing so great right now and the U.S. Senior Open is a biggie for me. I’m sorry, but I just won’t be able to make it. Good luck, though!”
That’s not the way Watson works. Even when given an out by the tournament host.
“I called Tom,” Justice recalled, “and I said, ‘Listen, Tom, if there's any part of you that wants to go to the U.S. Seniors, you go, because I would surely understand.’”
Watson turned down the offer quicker than it was proposed.
“Very simply I said, ‘Jim, I made a commitment to you and I'm sticking to it,’” Watson explained. “So here I am.'
There are many things that can be said about Tom Watson. He is, without a doubt, one of the best players of his generation. He is kind, cordial and congenial. And he’s not afraid to speak his mind.
Perhaps the most important thing to know about him, though, is that Watson is a man of his word. On the surface, it may seem a bit irrational to forgo a major championship in favor of helping out a sponsor.
But that’s just Watson honoring a commitment.
Tough to criticize a decision like this one. In fact, maybe we should stand and applaud.
Hey, it’s sort of like cheering for Santa Claus.