From the Golf Journal Archives - A Jones Award Winner: Elementary Watson

Jan 14, 2011

In February, Lorena Ochoa will be honored with the USGA Bob Jones Award at the Association’s Annual Meeting. During the month of January, the USGA Museum will again feature a series of classic Golf Journal articles about Bob Jones Award winners. The annual series continues with a look at the 1987 honoree, Tom Watson.

By George Eberl

(Note: This article originally appeared in the March/April 1987 issue of Golf Journal.)

For all his conspicuous talents as a professional tour golfer, Tom Watson is a mysterious figure. His record is known in a general way: He won the British Open five times (1975, 1977, 1980, 1982, 1983); he won the Masters twice (1977, 1981); he produced a dramatic victory in the United States Open in 1982. Among what are generally considered the four major events in golf, he has failed to win only the PGA Championship. He has won approximately $4 million and 31 tournaments in his 16 years as a tour professional. An admirable record.

Yet, will the real Tom Watson please stand up? Watson is not charismatic; he is an intense player who is blessed with a delicate putting touch despite forearms that have brought whimsical comparisons to those of Popeye. Reporters who flock around him with their notepads fluttering seldom come away with a jazzy quote to flavor their articles. Thus, while he has accumulated one of the finest playing records of the past decade or so, Watson remains something of an enigma.

Indeed, he may be remembered most often for his remarkable play in the 1977 British Open, at Turnberry; he and Jack Nicklaus turned it into a two-man match, with Watson winning by a single stroke and setting the British Open record with scores of 68-70-65-65—268. During a stretch in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it seemed that Watson and Nicklaus were in a world of their own. The 1982 Open, at Pebble Beach, was no exception; Watson birdied the par-3 17th with a testy pitch shot from dense greenside rough to break a deadlock with Nicklaus, then birdied the par-5 18th hole for a two-stroke victory, his only U.S. Open Championship.

Thomas Sturges Watson’s talent has been no secret; Watson, the person, is far less known, except for those who have become close to this self-contained man. Now that he has won the 1987 USGA Bob Jones Award, it seems a fine time to piece together another picture of Watson as he is seen by some of those who know him well.

Watson has given much of himself, for example, visiting Louise Nelson, the late wife of Byron Nelson, 21 times during the illness that would take her life.

Watson has spent many hours helping to raise more than $2 million for the Children's Hospital Fund, in Kansas City, Mo., during the past seven years.

In an era when celebrities – notably sports celebrities – are inclined to milk their fame to avoid paying for even the smallest service, Watson quietly goes his own way, seeking no handouts.

Finally, his insistence on playing golf by its Rules is well known among his colleagues, and he is, perhaps, one of the game's most knowledgeable players on those Rules.

It is one thing to play golf; it is another to cherish the game, its traditions and history, its Rules, and its people. It is this second approach that perhaps most powerfully characterizes Watson.

Ted Higgins, the golf professional at Ballybunion, one of Ireland’s finest courses, likes to tell any willing listener of his first meeting with Watson. On a cool, overcast day several years ago, a touring van pulled into the Ballybunion parking lot. A small, red-haired man briskly entered the clubhouse and asked a cashier if he could play the course. She accepted his green fee and pointed him toward the first lee. When the American left, the cashier frowned. The Yank had looked familiar. She called Higgins, confiding her perplexity, so Ted wandered out to the tee, a short walk from the pro shop.

Watson strolled up, a light golf bag slung over his shoulder. Higgins recognized him immediately, introduced himself, and the two of them played 18 holes together (Watson shot 71 on his first tour of Ballybunion, which is ranked as one of the world’s best tests; Higgins, despite brief apprehensions, has something to tell his grandchildren – he shot 70). For Watson, this was golf at its finest; no crowds, a superb course, warm golf talk, and the glowing Irish seaside landscape.

Watson returned the next day. Word had spread, however, and spectators were everywhere. He smiled (a trifle wryly, perhaps) and accepted graciously the invasion.

The unexpected in golf is not uncommon for Watson. He won the 1980 British Open at Muirfield, Scotland, and as if 72 holes in one of the game’s premier tournaments weren’t enough, he and his wife, Linda, joined a madcap crew led by Ben Crenshaw, a dedicated golf historian, in a parade of sorts down the 10th hole. Using five ancient hickory-shafted clubs and gutta-percha balls (vintage 1890), Crenshaw demolished one of the balls and played the par-4 in one over par, matching the 5 he had made with modern equipment when he finished third behind Watson earlier in the day.

With Tony Jacklin as his caddie and a bagpipe band lending an eerie accompaniment in the golden light of evening, Crenshaw headed for the nearby 18th tee. Watson could not resist; he challenged Crenshaw to a one-hole match.

Larry Kolb reported the scene (GOLF JOURNAL, September 1980): “C’mon then, Mate; ye’re on. An’ where are ye from?” Crenshaw asked.

“Gullane,” said Watson.

“ ‘And I’m a Musselburgh mon. Good luck to ye, Young Tom,’ ” Crenshaw said, shaking Watson’s hand.”

Trailed by a gallery that included Tom Weiskopf, Bill Rogers, Andy North, Bruce Lietzke, Tom Kite, Polly Crenshaw, Linda Watson, and Kolb, plus Jacklin as caddie, Crenshaw and Watson played their match. Crenshaw’s second shot fell into a bunker near the green, while Watson was in rough beyond the green with his third. Crenshaw failed to escape the bunker with his first attempt, but he made it with his second, then subsequently two-putted from 70 feet and made 6. Back to Kolb:

“Now Watson had to get down in two from the rough behind the green if he was to win the match. His situation clearly called for a lofted club, but the only instrument resembling a pitching club was a track iron, with a very small head designed to play shots from wagon ruts in the days when golf courses were on common land and the Rules insisted that the ball be played from where it lay.

“After several practice swings and a long, skeptical look down the shaft at that tiny head, Watson dismissed the club as ‘eminently shankable’ and called to Jacklin for a replacement. None was ideally suited, but Watson chose one and played a remarkably delicate shot that stopped just seven feet short of the hole.

“Earlier in the day, Watson stood on that green 20 feet from the hole knowing he could take five putts and win the British Open. Now, with an awkward, unfamiliar putter in his hands, an unruly crowd surrounding him and the hole, and bagpipes ringing in his ears, he needed a difficult seven-footer to win his second title of the day.

“After he surveyed the line of the putt, Watson took the ancient putter and assumed a crouched position only vaguely resembling his normal stance. The giddy crowd became still, and after two practice strokes, Watson rolled the ball straight into the hole.

“Crenshaw offered his hand to Watson. ‘A good match, sir,’ ” consoled Watson, bowing from the waist as he shook Crenshaw’s hand.

“Aye,” Crenshaw agreed. “A bonnie good match.”

BYRON NELSON, one of the greatest players the game has known, has especially warm feelings for Watson. After Byron’s wife, Louise, had been bedridden from a serious stroke, Nelson marveled that “Tom came to visit Louise twenty-one times.” She died in October 1985.

Writing about Nelson (GOLF JOURNAL, May/June 1986), Rhonda Glenn, who lives in Roanoke, Texas, as does Nelson, observed that “Watson stays at the ranch during his visits. The two men sometimes shop at Steele’s Market, in nearby Roanoke. Shoppers at Steele’s know Byron, of course, but they can’t quite place Watson. Away from his natural backdrop, this polite young-looking man with red hair and arms like cordwood takes on a pleasant anonymity. But the Roanoke people know something is familiar about Byron’s young friend, so they smile, and Watson smiles back.”

Robert W. Willits, of Kansas City, Mo., is a member of the USGA Executive Committee who should know a little something about Watson; Willits is his godfather.

Willits has played golf for 58 years with Ray Watson, Tom’s father. “Tom took up golf at the age of 6, and he won the Kansas City Match-Play Championship when he was 14. After that, he entered the Missouri State Amateur five times, and won four of them.”

During one of his State Amateur victories, Watson defeated Jim Colbert in the stroke-play tournament despite calling a penalty on himself when he scraped sand on his take-away swing in a bunker. It was well within character; he is a stickler for Rules (Watson and Frank Hannigan, USGA Senior Executive Director, produced the book The Rules of Golf Illustrated and Explained by Tom Watson).

Watson’s golf record at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, Calif., was modest, but he graduated in 1971 with a degree in psychology. Willits and others formed a small syndicate to underwrite a professional career for Watson; Willits said the syndicate finished in the black even before Watson’s first victory (1974 Western Open), by which time Watson had decided to go it on his own.

Watson came to public attention chiefly with his British Open victory in 1975 at Carnoustie, Scotland, defeating Jack Newton of Australia, in a playoff. He was named PGA Player of the Year six times during the decade following that victory, and, in 1980, he became the first tour player to win a half-million dollars ($530,808) in a single season.

Watson, his wife, and their two young children now live in Mission Hills, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City, and he is the driving force behind the annual Children’s Mercy Hospital fund campaign. The principal thrust comes from a golf exhibition arranged by Watson; last June, he was joined for the well-attended affair by Byron Nelson, JoAnne Garner, and Fuzzy Zoeller. Watson now joins the other three as winners of the Bob Jones Award.

Frank D. Tatum, Jr., former President of the USGA, is a longtime friend and now business associate who has traveled extensively with Watson in the British Isles. Tatum, Watson, and Robert Trent Jones, Jr., are building the Spanish Bay Golf Club in Pebble Beach, Calif., which is scheduled to be ready for play this summer.

Tatum was delighted when Watson became the 33rd winner of the Jones Award: “I’ve been a Watson-watcher from the days when he was on the Stanford golf team, spraying the ball all over the landscape and getting up and down from all sorts of impossible places. I’ve also been privileged to play a lot of golf with him. His love of the game is loaded with passion, which translates to a level of reverence like that which Bob Jones displayed so engagingly. Precious little more can be said of a golfer than to identify him with Bob Jones. Tom richly deserves that identification.”

Charles R. Yates, 1980 Bob Jones Award winner, was among those who nominated Watson: “If we look over the names of the past recipients, the absence of Tom’s name stands out like a sore thumb. I have always felt that true greatness is achieved by performance and manners that have been consistently great over a long period of time. In the era of Nicklaus (1975) and Palmer (1971), the third who really stands out is Tom.”

Watson is now in excellent company.

The 1982 United States Open, at Pebble Beach, Calif., supplied Tom Watson with a pair of emotional moments when he birdied the final two holes for a two-stroke victory over Jack Nicklaus. (USGA Museum)

It is one thing to play golf; it is another to cherish the game, its traditions and history, its Rules, and its people. It is this second approach that perhaps most powerfully characterizes Tom Watson. (USGA Museum)

In an era when celebrities – notably sports celebrities – are inclined to milk their fame to avoid paying for even the smallest service, Tom Watson quietly goes his own way, seeking no handouts. (USGA Museum)