Tom Watson won eight major golf tournaments, including five British Opens, and challenged Jack Nicklaus for golf supremacy in the late 1970s. Regarded as a failure under pressure in his early years, Watson silenced critics by winning all major tournaments but the PGA at least once. He was twice a Masters champion and took the U.S. Open once.
"Beginning in 1977, Watson won six PGA Tour Player of the Year awards, and he led the money list five times," Web Golf Village wrote. "Yet it was his head-to-head victories against Nicklaus, ten years his senior, that cemented him as a player for the ages." After joining the Senior PGA Tour, Watson atoned in part for his one Grand Slam void, the PGA, by winning the Seniors' version in 2001.
Quiet But Determined
Watson, nicknamed "Huckleberry Dillinger" while growing up in Kansas City, was a capable all-around athlete. His sporadic success at Stanford University hardly foreshadowed a Hall of Fame career. His peers, however, admired Watson's work ethic when he turned pro. Part of Watson's growth progress included painful defeats, such as the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York. Watson led by a stroke entering the final round, but shot 79 and fell to fifth. The following year, at Medinah, Illinois, Watson led the U.S. Open after two rounds, but fizzled again. Legend Byron Nelson advised Watson and later became his coach.
In 1975, Watson achieved his watershed victory, a British Open playoff triumph that quelled doubts and
paved the way for five British titles. (Watson is one of the few Americans to have received honorary membership to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, a frequent British Open site.) Watson made birdie on the last hole with a 20-foot putt that pulled him even with Jack Newton, then defeated Newton by one stroke in an 18-hole playoff the following day.
"Young Tom Watson finally became a champion, a new person and one hellacious player," Dan Jenkins wrote in Sports Illustrated. "After a lot of slightly baroque things had happened on the becalmed, deroughed and tranquilized beast of Carnoustie, it all came down to a Sunday match between the 25-year-old Watson, who admits he possibly thinks too much, and an equally young Australian, Jack Newton, who admits he drinks too much."
"Holding together was not something Watson had done so well in the past," Jenkins wrote. Watson's litmus test was on No, 17, but this time he held his own, making a necessary five-foot putt for par. "Tom rammed it home as if it were a gimme. That would have been the perfect spot for Watson to do what he had so often done in the past—to miss, and start blowing another one."
Nicklaus, and "The Shot"
Despite that British Open victory, Watson's reputation for hitting the wrong shot at the wrong time resurfaced. "I choked plenty before I finally won," Watson said in a March, 2001 interview with Golf Digest. "And some since." But at the 1977 Masters, Watson nailed four birdies on the final six holes to beat Nicklaus by two at Augusta National. Cautious play that day was not an option. "I knew I had to make some birdies to win," Watson said. "I couldn't make pars to beat Jack."
Among Watson's challenges was an approach shot on No. 12 with a bug resting on his ball. "I asked a USGA (United States Golf Association) official could I lift it and he said, 'Of course you can't," Watson recalled. "Nicklaus makes birdie and this little bug was on the back of my ball." But Watson made par on 12. The two dueled again a few months later, at the British Open in Turnberry. Watson prevailed by a stroke, shooting 65s each of the last two rounds.
Then came "The Shot" in 1982. "No matter how many victories have may still have left in him, Watson will always be remembered for The Shot," said Florida-based golf writer Edward Kiersh on the Cigar Aficiando web site. Locked against Nicklaus again, this time at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, California, Watson found himself in jeopardy on the 17th hole, "a ticklish par-3 hugging the coastline," Kiersh wrote.
Watson's tee shot landed in a grass thicket with a brutal downslope. A bogey loomed. "Then came what many golf aficionados call The Miracle," Kiersh wrote. "Standing ankle-deep in the rough, with the winds buffeting his slight torso, Watson hit a very high chip shot that seemed to have enough momentum to roll six to eight feet past the cup. Yet the ball broke right, straight into the cup." The crowd screamed in delight, and Watson birdied No. 18 to secure the trophy.
Took Strong Stands
Watson's stridency emerged frequently in the 1990s, first by resigning from the Kansas City Country Club because it denied membership to Jewish friend Henry Bloch, the founder of tax preparation company H&R Block. His move triggered a rift with his father that took years to settle. When the club adjusted its membership criteria, Watson rejoined. He also took aim at comedian Bill Murray and CBS commentator Gary McCord when he felt they carried their irreverence too far. He also refused to autograph a menu for European team member Sam Torrance while captain of the competing U.S. Ryder Cup team. "That humorless, moral absolutism has made him an anachronism in this era of over-indulged Latrell Sprewells ," Kiersh wrote, referring to a pro basketball player who once tried to choke his coach.
Watson's game tailed off through the 1990s, largely because his putting game took a turn for the worse. He blew a final round lead in the 1994 British Open (putting also cost him at the 1987 U.S. Open, which he lost by a stroke), and several three-putts that year cost him a victory at Pebble Beach. He joined the Senior Tour in 1999, and in May, 2001, his Senior PGA Championship provided some consolation for the one mainstream Grand Slam event he never won. He painfully recalled blowing a five-stroke lead on the final day in 1978 and losing a playoff to John Mahaffey.
Watson finished in the top 31 on the 2002 Champions Tour money list. Twice in three years he won the season-ending Senior Tour Championship. He still competes in the Grand Slam events, and at the PGA Championship in Chaska, Minnesota, made the cut and on the final day, tied Tiger Woods for low round of the day, at 67.
In late January, 2003, Watson acknowledged that Bruce Edwards, his caddie of more than three decades, has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig 's disease. Watson said he would stick by his caddie and longtime friend.
|1949||Born September 4 in Kansas City, Missouri|
|1971||Graduates from Stanford University with degree in psychology|
|1990||Resigns from Kansas City Country Club over admission policies, forcing rift with his father|
|1993||Criticizes comedian Bill Murray for behavior at pro-am tournament|
|1994||Writes letter of complaint to CBS about golf broadcaster Gary McCord|
|1999||Final year as PGA Tour regular|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1974||Wins Western Open for first pro championship|
|1975||British Open champion|
|1977||Masters and British Open champion|
|1977-79||Wins Vardon Trophy for lowest stroke average on PGA Tour for three straight years|
|1977-80||Leading PGA Tour money winner four straight years|
|1980||British Open champion|
|1982||U.S. Open and British Open champion|
|1983||British Open champion|
|1984||Leading PGA Tour money winner|
|1988||Inducted into World Hall of Fame|
|1989||Member of winning Ryder Cup team|
|1993||Member of winning Ryder Cup team|
|1999||Joins Senior PGA Tour September 6 and wins Bank One Championship two weeks later|
|1999||Named honorary member of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews|
|2001||Wins Senior PGA Championship|
|2001||Inducted into Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame|
Watson is active with many charities and other community-based endeavors, particularly around his native Kansas City. He has designed golf courses and has worked to make golf more accessible to children.
Tom Watson Masters Nicklaus
"Does this mean an end to the choker image?" Tom Watson was asked.
"What do you think? I'll let you answer that question," Watson replied.
The questioner never answered—he didn't have to.
Thomas Sturges Watson had let his golf sticks do the talking.
Watson had the game's most feared player, "Golden Bear" Jack Nicklaus, crawling up his back but he didn't flinch.
The 5-9 160-pounder from Kansas City edged the Bear by two strokes in an Easter Sunday windup of the 41st Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club.
Source: Eubanks, Robert. Sports Illustrated, April 11, 1977.
"An Interview with Tom Watson." ASAP Sports, http://www.asapsports.com/golf/2001pgasench/052701TW.html, (May 27, 2001).
Eubanks, Robert. "Watson Outguns Nicklaus for Masters Championship." Sports Illustrated, http://sportsillustrated.com/augusta/history/ac/1977, (January 15, 2003).
Giannone, John. "Senior Citizen: Tom Watson Ready to Challenge Senior Tour." CNN-Sports Illustrated, http://sportsillustrated.com/thenetwork/news/1999/09/09/one_on_one_watson/, (April 23, 2000).
Jenkins, Dan. "The Beast Brought Out His Best." Sports Illustrated, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/golf/1999/british_open/news/1999/07/12/britishflash75/, (January 15, 2003).
Kiersh, Edward. "Watson in Winter." Cigar Aficiando, http://www.cigaraficiando.com/Cigar/Aficiando/people/fd1098.html, (September/October, 1998).
PGA.com, Tom Watson Biographical Information. http://www.golfweb.com/players/00/22/56/bio.html, (January 15, 2003).
Seitz, Nick. "Tom Terrific." Golf Digest, http://www.golfdigest.com/features/index.ssf?/features/tom_terr_5681fxic.html, (March, 2001).
Voepel, Mechelle. "Bruce Edwards, caddie and friend to Tom Watson, diagnosed with ALS." Kansas City Star, http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/sports/5008974.htm, (January 23, 2003).
Westin, David. "Watson's Farewell Tour Grinds On." CNN-Sports Illustrated, http://www.cnnsi.com/augusta/stories/040499/oth_124-8021.shtml, (April 3, 1999).
Westin, David. "Who's Won What? Even the Major Golfers Aren't Sure." CNN-Sports Illustrated, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/augusta/stories/040998/oth_majors.shtml, (April 9, 1998).
World Golf Village, Tom Watson Profile. http://www.wgv.com/hof/members/twatson.html, (January 15, 2003).
Sketch by Paul Burton