WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – Tom Watson was only minutes removed from posting an opening-round 2-under 68 at The Greenbrier Classic when he was asked about the possibility of making the tournament cut one day later.
The 63-year-old shot a perturbed glance in the direction of the questioner, as if the insinuation itself had touched a nerve. Then he returned serve with a query of his own.
“Well,” he said in that familiar, thoughtful cadence. “How about winning the tournament?”
Those around him chuckled politely, but playing to win is no laughing matter for Watson. Despite not having claimed a PGA Tour title in just over 15 years, he’s only four years removed from nearly winning a ninth major championship, so any optimism toward reaching that milestone again this week shouldn’t be taken too lightly.
He certainly doesn’t sound like a guy who’s just happy to be here.
“I turned a 66 into a 68 today with the putter,” he admitted. “Maybe overnight the fried chicken I’m going to have on the Fourth of July will help my putting stroke.”
With apologies to Mom, Chevrolet and apple pie, it doesn’t get much more American than Tom Watson, the Fourth of July and fried chicken.
On the anniversary of our country’s independence, it should be noted that the United States Ryder Cup team has been owned by Europe lately, winning just once since the turn of the century.
Though he’s spent the past decade slipping in and out of relevance, Watson once again finds himself firmly in the spotlight as captain of the stars and stripes. He wasn’t appointed to the position as a figurehead, either. No, the PGA of America called on him as a stopgap, the man to help return the trophy back to home soil.
And the captain is treating the role with the same seriousness as he is his golf game at this week’s tournament.
“I’m scouting,” he said Thursday. “I’m in the scouting mode right now as the Ryder Cup captain, watching these players play. Not only the youngsters, but also the veterans who have been on the team before. That’s part of me getting to know their capabilities better. And I’m watching on TV more. I’m watching these players perform down the stretch, which I think is a critical thing in my selections of players, because you want somebody who can close the deal.”
In a bit of newsworthiness, Watson even revealed that his position as team skipper will have him competing a little more often in PGA Tour events, just to better keep an eye on his potential roster-fillers.
“I’ll be playing the PGA this year, so I’ll be playing against the kids there; I’ll be playing against the kids at the British Open,” he continued. “So I’ll see both our team and their team playing over there.”
He may be 63, but he’s hardly out of touch. During this week’s news conference to name Andy North as his first assistant captain, Watson ran through playing candidates like an expert analyst, breaking down the chances of players from Bill Haas to Hunter Mahan to Steve Stricker.
On Thursday, he was again asked if there are any players who have impressed him recently, players with whom he was previously unfamiliar.
“Billy Horschel,” he said without hesitation. “With the exception of those pants he wore at the U.S. Open, he's impressive. He's had seven top-10 finishes and a winner. He's a strong kid, looks like he has very good fundamentals. Again, he hasn't been on the Ryder Cup team, but who knows what's going to happen in the next 16 months.”
Those aren’t the words of a captain reciting statistics off a spreadsheet. Watson had those numbers handy from memory alone – and plenty others, too.
With an increased focus on becoming more visible, he’ll be requiring players to impress him. And when they do, he’ll be watching.
“It's kind of like that movie ‘Top Gun’ with the instructors telling Maverick, ‘C'mon, kid, get back in the saddle, show me what you've got, show me what you've got,’” he said. “When I'm out there, I'm watching.”
It’s true; Watson is keeping close tabs on any potential team members, not only this week but every week. For now, though, those players will have to impress him by beating him.
After all, Watson is here in scouting mode, but he also still believes he’s here to win the tournament.