Young Tom Watson

By Rich LernerMay 21, 2009, 4:00 pm
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BOSTON – So often he was described as “the boyish” Tom Watson. To this day, only the creases on his face disagree. Otherwise, he still looks much as he did 30 years ago.
 
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.
 
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    Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

    By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

    Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

    Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

    This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

    While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

    Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

    Getty Images

    McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

    By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

    CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

    Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

    “It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”


    Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

    Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


    McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

    “Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

    He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.  

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    Height of irony: Phil putts in front of 'rules' sign

    By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 1:36 pm

    A picture is worth 1,000 words and potentially two strokes for playing a moving ball under Rule 14-5 but not Rule 1-2.

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    And so we're left to wonder about what Phil asked himself back at Shinnecock Hills: "The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’”

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    Rory looking for that carefree inner-child

    By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:28 pm

    CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Eleven years later, Rory McIlroy cringes at the photo: the yellow sweater with the deep V-neck, the chubby cheeks and the messy mop that curled under his cap.

    “You live and you learn,” he said Wednesday, offering a wry smile.

    The last time McIlroy played at a Carnoustie Open, in 2007, he earned the Silver Medal as the low amateur. He tied for 42nd, but the final result had mattered little. Grateful just to have a spot in the field, courtesy of his European Amateur title, he bounced along the fairways, soaking up every moment, and lingered behind the 18th green as one of his local heroes, Padraig Harrington, battled one of his favorite players, Sergio Garcia. Waiting for the trophy presentation, he passed the time playing with Padraig’s young son, Paddy. On Wednesday, McIlroy spotted Paddy, now 15, walking around Carnoustie with his three-time-major-winning father.

    “He’s massive now – he towers over me,” he said. “It’s so funny thinking back on that day.”

    But it’s also instructive. If there’s a lesson to be learned from ’07, it’s how carefree McIlroy approached and played that week. He was reminded again of that untroubled attitude while playing a practice round here with 23-year-old Jon Rahm, who stepped onto each tee, unsheathed his driver and bombed away with little regard for the wind or the bounce or the fescue. McIlroy smiled, because he remembers a time, not too long ago, that he’d attack a course with similar reckless abandon.


    Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

    Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


    “I just think, as you get older, you get a little more cautious in life,” said McIlroy, 29. “I think it’s only natural. There’s something nice about being young and being oblivious to some stuff. The more I can get into that mindset, the better I’ll play golf.”

    And so on the eve of this Open, as he approaches the four-year anniversary of his last major title, McIlroy finds himself searching for a way to channel that happy-go-lucky 18-year-old who was about to take the world by storm, to tap into the easygoing excellence that once defined his dominance.

    It’s been a year since he first hinted at what he’s been missing. Last year’s Open at Royal Birkdale was the final event of his long run with caddie J.P. Fitzgerald. The chief reason for the split, he said, had nothing to do with some of the questionable on-course decisions, but rather a desire to take ownership of him game, to be freed up alongside one of his best friends, Harry Diamond.

    That partnership has produced only one victory so far, and over the past few months, McIlroy has at times looked unsettled between the ropes. It’s difficult to compute, how someone with seemingly so much – a résumé with four majors, a robust bank account, a beautiful wife – can also appear disinterested and unmotivated.

    “I think sometimes I need to get back to that attitude where I play carefree and just happy to be here,” he said. “A golf tournament is where I feel the most comfortable. It’s where I feel like I can 100 percent be myself and express myself. Sometimes the pressure that’s put on the top guys to perform at such a level every week, it starts to weigh on you a little bit. The more I can be like that kid, the better.”

    It’s a decidedly different landscape from when the erstwhile Boy Wonder last won a major, in summer 2014. Jordan Spieth had won just a single Tour event, not three majors. Dustin Johnson wasn’t world No. 1 but merely a tantalizing tease, a long-hitting, fast-living physical freak who was just beginning a six-month break to address "personal challenges." Two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka hadn’t even started playing in the States.  

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    “I think at this stage players have caught up,” Harrington said. “There’s many players who drive the ball comparable and have certainly eaten into that advantage. Rory is well on pace to get into double digits with majors, but it has got harder. There’s no doubt there’s more players out there who are capable of having a big week and a big game for a major. It makes it tough.”

    It’s not as though McIlroy hasn’t had opportunities to add to his major haul; they’ve just been less frequent and against stronger competition. In the 13 majors since he last won, he’s either finished in the top 10 or missed the cut in 11 of them. This year, he played in the final group at the Masters, and was on the verge of completing the career Grand Slam, before a soul-crushing 74 on the last day. His U.S. Open bid was over after nine holes, after an opening 80 and a missed cut during which he declined to speak to reporters after both frustrating rounds.

    “I’m trying,” he said Wednesday. “I’m trying my best every time I tee it up, and it just hasn’t happened.”

    A year after saying that majors are the only events that will define the rest of his career, he recently shrugged off the doom and gloom surrounding his Grand Slam drought: “It doesn’t keep me up at night, thinking, If I never won another major, I can’t live with myself.”

    Eleven years ago, McIlroy never would have troubled himself with such trivial questions about his legacy. But perhaps a return to Carnoustie, to where his major career started, is just what he needs to unlock his greatness once again.