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Watson Continues to Inspire

Tom Watson
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Let me begin today with a disclaimer: I consider Tom Watson a friend. I could not have started or finished, “Caddy For Life,” the book I wrote seven years ago about Bruce Edwards, Watson’s best friend and lifelong caddie, without Tom’s support and help.

Since Bruce’s death, he and I have worked together to raise money for ALS research through the Bruce Edwards Foundation. His current caddie – when he isn’t running Democratic political campaigns – is Neil Oxman, one of Bruce’s closest friends and now a close friend of mine.

So if you are looking for an objective analysis of Watson’s victory in the Senior PGA Championship on Sunday at Valhalla, you should look somewhere else. What you will get here is the perspective of someone who sat transfixed late Sunday afternoon, almost averting his eyes whenever Watson stood over a short putt – especially those last two on 18, one in regulation and one in the playoff with David Eger

Watson has always been a popular figure in golf. I believe some of it is because, as talented as he is and as successful as he has been, it has never been easy for him. He had to shoot 79 at Winged Foot on Sunday at the U.S. Open in 1974 and fail again on Sunday a year later at Medinah before he won his first major – the 1975 British Open.

Although he would go on to win eight majors, there were almost as many defeats as there were victories: The 1978 PGA at Oakmont where he lost a four-shot lead on the back nine on Sunday; the 1983 U.S. Open on the same golf course where Larry Nelson made the miracle putt on 17 to beat him; the 1984 British Open at St. Andrews where Seve Ballesteros rallied to catch him when Watson bogeyed the Road Hole. There were other near misses: the ’87 U.S. Open at Olympic Club (Scott Simpson); the ’94 British Open (late collapse after taking the lead on Sunday) which, until 2009, Watson called his most wrenching defeat. 

Through it all, like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus before him, Watson – to quote Rudyard Kipling, handled the two imposters, victory and defeat, with equal grace. The next excuse he makes for a loss will be his first. One of the reasons Edwards loved caddying for him for so long was that he was never once blamed for Watson’s failures.

“The player gets the credit and the glory when things go right,” Watson has always said. “He has to take the blame when things go wrong.” 

Everyone who loves golf suffered when Watson developed the yips and they celebrated when he overcame them to win the 1996 Memorial – his first win on Tour in nine years. It was hard to tell that day who was more emotional, Watson or Nicklaus. After their epic battles, the two men have become close friends through the years.

In it’s own tragic way, Bruce’s illness made Watson more popular. How could you not be moved by the genuine love between the two men or by Watson’s battle to do everything he could for his friend in his final months? On the day Bruce died – the first day of the 2004 Masters – Watson, the stoic Midwesterner who always hid his emotions from the public, sat in the Augusta media room with tears rolling down his face and said, “we’re going to beat this damn disease.” 

Since the day, he has poured heart, soul and time into trying to beat the damn disease. There aren’t many people who understand ALS and the research going into finding a cure for it as well as Watson. Bruce’s death changed him, changed his priorities. He still loves to play golf and loves to compete, but without ever having uttered the cliché, “this puts sports in perspective,” it is clear that his perspective on life has changed.

He is more outgoing, more willing to share emotions and closer to his children and his brothers. He will screech to a halt, even if he has just finished a terrible day on the golf course, if he hears someone say something about ALS or about knowing someone with ALS.

 Maybe that explains the first words he spoke to the media moments after his devastating near-victory (it’s difficult to call it a defeat) in the 2009 British Open at Turnberry. As reporters filed silently into the interview room, many of them at least as upset as Watson, he smiled and said, “Come on fellas, this isn’t a funeral.”

It was a golf tournament and, as upsetting as it was to Watson to have been so close to arguably the greatest single achievement in golf history, he understood that it really wasn’t life and death. 

Not long after that day, I had a lengthy phone conversation with Watson. He called, actually, to see how I was feeling after open-heart surgery. After I reported that he had almost put me back in the hospital during that last day at Turnberry, I asked him how he was feeling now that he’d had a chance to think about what had happened.

“I don’t think the whole thing hit me until I got home,” he said. “A lot of people congratulated me that next week (at the Senior British Open) but when I got home and saw all the mail and started reading it, that’s when I understood. I just couldn’t believe the number of people who said I had inspired them by playing the way I did. Don’t get me wrong; I wanted to win – badly. But I think I understand now that what I was able to do meant a lot to a lot of people and, really, that’s what’s most important.” 

Tom Watson has inspired people for a long time now. He did it in an athletic sense when he dueled with Nicklaus at Augusta, at Turnberry and at Pebble Beach. He did it in a human sense when he stood by the side of a dying friend to the end, and beyond. He did it with his spirit at Turnberry in 2009. He still does it at the age of 61 when he goes on to the golf course with that sweet swing and that Huck Finn smile that masks how much he still wants to win. Nine months after Turnberry, as if to prove it hadn’t been a fluke, he finished T-18 at The Masters on a supersized golf course where no 60-year-old man should have had any chance to compete.

He did it again on Sunday. As usual, it wasn’t easy. I had to take a walk around my house to settle myself down after he missed the 5-footer on 18 to force the playoff with Eger and I was holding my breath on the gimmie in the playoff. It went in. 

I shook a fist, got a big smile on my face watching Neil give Tom a hug and I thought about Bruce. Wherever he is, I know he had that big, goofy grin on his face. And I know for sure that Tom and Neil were both thinking about him at that moment too.

Exactly as it should be.