CHOKING OFF CRITICISM WITH ONE STROKE

A pressure putt at Augusta finally silenced those who were saying that Tom Watson couldn't win a big one. A look at a confident Masters champ
April 24, 1977

The Tournament of Champions at La Costa, on the Southern California coast, rivals the Hawaiian Open as the most popular stop on the PGA tour. It is worth winning a tournament just to get there. Tennis courts and exercise classes are available to the players' wives, and there are Jacuzzis, steam baths and massages for everybody. The golfers' expenses are paid by Mutual of New York, the sponsor, and nobody goes home early because there is no cut to miss. It is a place to wind down after the Masters and to make at least $2,250, no matter how badly one plays. In fact, the atmosphere is so relaxing that in the dozen years since the T of C has been scheduled within a week or two of the Masters, the Masters champion has never won it. Tom Watson, the hero of Augusta, was no exception. Last week he shot 74-73-69-76—292 and finished 26th in the field of 32. Jack Nicklaus, having had enough of second place, tied Bruce Lietzke at seven under, then beat him on the 3rd hole of sudden death.

Part of the problem for the Masters champion at La Costa is the press. Until the tournament gets under way, he is its prime target. The Watsons, Tom and Linda, arrived at La Costa at 10 o'clock Monday night, having flown from Atlanta to Los Angeles and driven south from there. The first call came at 7:30 Tuesday morning. Others followed. Tom was asked about his swing, his marriage, his childhood, his future—anything he wanted to talk about. But the one question that has dogged his interviews on and off since the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 1974, the question that he had to answer over and over again throughout the week at Augusta, even though he was playing one fine round after another, seemed finally to have been laid to rest. From now on Tom Watson can lose a golf tournament any way he likes, and nobody but a fool is going to suggest he choked. He has been put to the test by Nicklaus playing at his best, and his swing and his will have held firm. In the interview room at Augusta, Nicklaus was being asked whether something Ben Crenshaw had said about him ("We're not as scared of him as we used to be") had had anything to do with his shooting his final-round 66. Watson, who was standing in a corner, waiting his turn at the microphones, stepped forward. "Let me say something about that," he said. "I'm always afraid of this man."

"No, he's not," said Nicklaus, smiling. "He's not afraid of anybody. That's why he won."

In the caste system of American golf, Tom Watson was born a Brahmin. He grew up in Kansas City, Mo., the descendant, on both sides, of a long line of illustrious citizens. His prep school was Pembroke Country Day and his college was Stanford, where his father and his older brother Ridge had preceded him. The club where he learned to play golf, and where he caddied for his father and his father's friends, was the Kansas City Country Club, a WASP bastion of substance and conservatism. Though he is rumored to have voted for George McGovern in 1972, Tom is still a member and plays there whenever he is at home.

In another age Watson, like a Bob Jones or a Francis Ouimet, might have enjoyed a brief, brilliant amateur career and then retired to a life of order, property and privacy. Instead, he has chosen the transient existence of a touring pro.

"I don't care about money," he says in his thoughtful, measured way. "I'm just trying to play the best golf I can. I have a certain talent; I think it's a better-than-average talent. If I can get a variety of shots and start hitting the ball with more authority and a little bit lower...."

These days great talents are developed on the tour, not in the country clubs. Therefore, Tom and Linda Watson live in motels and out of suitcases. They eat meals in bad restaurants, and Tom smiles into cameras pointed at him by perfect strangers. He protects what privacy his life allows with a wall of reserve that is camouflaged by his redheaded, freckle-faced, gap-toothed good looks and a pleasant, modest manner.

"But he burns inside," says Bob Willits, Watson's partner in the Crosby Pro-Am this year. Robert Willits is a Kansas City businessman who is an old friend of Raymond E. Watson Jr., Tom's father. Bob Willits and Ray Watson, who was known as Ramey then, were scratch golfers in their younger days, Willits having been Missouri Amateur champion in 1947 and Watson having reached the fourth round of the National Amateur in 1950.

"Uncle" Bob Willits has known Tom since birth and was the one who nicknamed him Flytrap Finnegan when he was eight. Flytrap Finnegan, the World's Worst Caddie, was a comic-strip character who never stopped talking. "Tom yakked all the time," says Willits.

"That is untrue," says Watson. "The true version is I didn't talk at all. When I was a kid I was very quiet. But they named me Fly anyhow." To this day, if you follow Ray Watson as he accompanies Tom around a golf course, you will hear him mutter now and then, "Come on, Fly. Hit a good one."

The Crosby, in January, was Watson's first U.S. victory in 15 months. Year before last, 1975, had been a fine one for him. He had won the British Open, his first major title, the Byron Nelson Classic and the World Series of Golf. He was on his way. After the World Series, Nicklaus, beaten by two strokes, said, "He knows exactly where he's going. Straight ahead. Nothing distracts him. He has great ability, super confidence and just enough cockiness. He's not a comer, he has arrived."

But in 1976 things began to go wrong with Watson's swing. "I was not hitting the ball very well all year," he says. "I was throwing the club at the ball, releasing too soon and hitting a variety of bad shots." One bad shot led to another, and he finished the year without a tour win and five places lower on the money list, dropping from seventh to 12th.

"I was a little bit discouraged," he says, "but I kept on fighting, kept on practicing—the wrong things—and always thinking, 'There are better times ahead.' "

Trying is a recurring theme in Watson's public statements. "Damn it," he said, allowing himself a rare oath after he had won the British Open, "anything can happen in this game of golf. Never give up and never say die. If a person gives up once, there is always the chance he will do it again and again. I'll never get out on the golf course and give up. You've got to have guts."

"He's got a garbage can full of guts," Hubert Green once said of Watson.

When Watson was not trying last year, he was listening, mainly to Byron Nelson. Watson spent three days in October at Nelson's Fairway Ranch in Roanoke, Texas, just north of Fort Worth. The two made a complete inventory of Tom's game. They played and practiced each day at Preston Trail, Nelson's club in Dallas, and in the evenings they ate Louise Nelson's cooking and talked. "One night," says Watson, "Byron brought out an old ragged box, with pictures of his past falling out of it, of when he and Louise were married and how they grew up in Texarkana. They are really kind people to take me in and treat me like their son."

"First you must know," says Nelson of those three days, "that Tom was a good player to begin with, a young man with a lot of talent. But he felt he was not the player he should be, even though he won a lot of money. He wanted to get better, and that attitude is very important in golf."

Soon after Watson left Texas he was beginning to hit irons like Nelson, one of the greatest iron players ever. "On the 14th hole at Preston Trail one day," Watson says, "I hit a bunch of two-irons that were all within 15 feet of each other." (A famous story about Nelson is that one afternoon he noticed, to his mild surprise, that he had hit two balls into divots he had taken during a morning round. And in the 1939 Open, which he won, he hit the pins six times with six different clubs.)

Nelson encouraged Watson to relax his right side slightly and to keep his legs driving through the shots. He also worked on Watson's tempo, and that, as much as anything, was what won him the Masters two weeks ago. "Tom was too fast, too fidgety at the address. His waggle was too nervous," says Nelson.

(Only once in the fierce heat of that final round at Augusta did Watson feel he had rushed a shot, and that was off the 1st tee. At the par-3 16th, for instance, when he and Nicklaus were tied at 11 under par, and Watson knew he was going to have to make a birdie in the next three holes to win, he hit a five-iron—smoothly, gracefully, effortlessly—over the pond and straight at the flag, which was tucked in the back left corner of the green. The putt for a birdie was 15 feet, and he missed it, but the tempo of that swing told the story of what was to come.)

The effects of his session with Nelson began to show almost immediately. A month later he won a tournament in Japan, and then in January there was the victory at the Crosby—a 14-under-par 273, which beat Tony Jacklin by a stroke and set a tournament scoring record. Watson allowed himself a "Hot damn!" of happiness. The next week he set another scoring record in winning the Andy Williams Open in San Diego—19 under par. Then, at the Hawaiian Open his hot streak and his string of 10 subpar rounds ended. He finished fifth, and Bruce Lietzke took over the spotlight.

In the period between Hawaii and the Tournament Players Championship at Sawgrass, a little more than a month, the new swing in which Watson had so much confidence early in the year began to falter. He blew a three-stroke lead in the final round at Sawgrass and the next week lost his four-stroke lead at the Heritage Classic at Harbour Town on the front nine the last day. Both tournaments were nationally televised. No matter that he was the tour's leading money winner, or that he had two wins, a second, a fourth and two fifths. People began to write him off, and "choke," that ugly word, popped up everywhere.

To Watson's mind the loss at Sawgrass was inevitable because he had not been playing well during the week. His only surprise was that he was leading the tournament. "I didn't feel I'd lost anything because I wasn't playing well enough to win. I didn't deserve to win," he said last week. "At the Heritage, though, I was playing pretty good and I was pretty dejected."

When reporters got tired of asking Watson about choking, they asked his colleagues. "I don't think he chokes," said Crenshaw after the third round at Augusta. "My opinion is he's working on his swing all the time. He tries something, and it looks like he's choking. He tries to hit it right to left, or left to right. He's learning how to play the game. I have a lot of respect for him."

Bud Finger, the golf coach at Stanford when Watson was there, said recently, "He was always tearing his swing apart and putting it back together to find out what was wrong with it."

The learning process made Watson an erratic college player. In a match against the University of California he trailed his opponent, Artie McNickle, by three shots with four holes to go, whereupon he scored an eagle and three birdies. On the other hand, said a teammate, "He'd be three, four or five under par and then suddenly make an eight. He was a dedicated player who practiced a lot but couldn't hold a lead."

Watson, who is 27, is a late bloomer—but then so was Ben Hogan. Watson's solid swing and his intelligent approach to the game have attracted attention ever since he surfaced at the Hawaiian Open in 1973 and then blew a three-stroke lead in the last round. But it was his third round at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 1974 that gave substance to his promise. Harry W. Easterly Jr., now the president of the U.S. Golf Association, was referee that day, and he called it the best and most exciting round of competitive golf he had ever witnessed. Tom shot a 36-33—69, one of only seven subpar rounds of the 429 rounds that were played over the demanding course that week, and he led Hale Irwin by a stroke. The next day he shot 41 on the back nine for a 79 and finished tied for fifth.

At the Open at Medinah the next year Watson shot a record-tying 67-68—135 for the first two rounds and a 78-77—155 for the last two to finish ninth.

"I went into Medinah playing terribly," he says. "I manufactured a swing that held up for two rounds, but that was it. At Winged Foot the same thing. I went in there playing absolutely awful. But I thought it out pretty well. I said to myself that on that course I wasn't going to allow myself to miss any greens on the same side the pin was on. If the pin was on the left side, I knew there was no way to get it up and down from that side. I hit eight greens in regulation the first round and shot 73, but I followed my game plan perfectly—I missed the greens to the right when the pin was on the left, chipped it up close and putted well. In the second round I made an adjustment in my swing and started hitting the ball straighter, but the last round the swing fell apart.

"It was a disheartening experience," he says, "but being rational, I couldn't say, 'You played well enough to win,' because I hadn't. There have been times when I've been down, but, on the other hand, when I'm down on myself I still try. I try to make myself try. That's one of the things Byron Nelson said when he retired. They asked him why, and he said, 'Because I had to try to try.' I still have to desire to try."

At Pembroke Country Day, a small private school in Kansas City, Watson was a quarterback on the football team that was ranked in the state, and a guard on the basketball team that went to the quarterfinals of its division in the state tournament. He was also a broad jumper who leaped 19 feet when he was a freshman, but his true passion was hunting. He fired a gun for the first time when he was 10. "When we went quail hunting I'd wake up six or seven times during the night, checking to see if the sun had come up yet, and it never came up," Tom recalls. "Mostly I'd walk behind my father, and if a bird got up, I'd hit the deck."

Ray Watson owns one duck blind and leases another near Mound City in the Missouri River bottoms, and he keeps an apartment over a pool hall in Mound City because of its convenience to the blinds. From the end of October until early December the flooded cornfields of the bottomland are way stations for thousands of migrating Canada and blue geese and green-winged teal.

"I love everything about hunting," says Tom. "When you're out duck hunting before the sun is up, before there is any light in the sky, there are no sounds at all. Then you listen to the bottoms arise. The ducks that are out on the water sound like a freight train when they get up."

The Watson family was close, and Tom's upbringing was gentle. Although his father was his mentor, Tom can remember being reprimanded about his golf only once. "It was at the Western Amateur in Rockford, Ill. I had shot 74-75 in the first two rounds. He told me, 'Get on the stick! You're too good to be playing like this.' I think the reason was that my grandmother was sick then, and dying. It wasn't that I wasn't trying. All the rest of the time my father was encouraging."

Tom, in turn, was easy on his family. "I don't think he caused his parents a moment's problem ever," says Willits. When the Watsons play golf now, Tom has to give his father nine strokes. "That's too much," he says. "I have to shoot 67 to beat him."

Tom's only brush with authority was a three-day suspension from school when he was 14. It was his first date with Linda, a school dance, and he was caught smoking. "I was showing her how cool I was," he says.

Tom and Linda met when their schools staged a joint production of The Pirates of Penzance. Tom was stage manager; Linda was in the chorus. Linda Watson is as small, dark and exotic as Tom is fair, freckled and Missourian, yet they are so completely a unit that it is impossible to think of one without the other. It was Linda who held up their wedding for almost two years while she got used to the idea of being married to a touring golf pro. "I was family-oriented," she says. "My father was a businessman who worked nine to five every day. I was accustomed to a certain atmosphere, and I wasn't sure about traveling and living on the run. I wasn't sure it was right for our marriage, or for me."

When Tom went west to Palo Alto, Linda went east to a junior college in Pennsylvania and then transferred to Mills College in Oakland, across the bay from Stanford, for her last two years. After graduating, like Tom with a major in psychology, she went to work for her father as a bookkeeper in his real-estate business in Kansas City. Now she does the same for Tom. She also handles his appointments, his clothes, his correspondence and his travel plans. "She leaves him free to think about golf," says a friend. "If I'd known how great the tour was going to be, I'd have married him in college," Linda says now.

She is smart, loyal and irrepressibly gregarious. She talks up a typhoon with whoever falls in step with her on a golf course. She calls her husband Honey or Tommy. He calls her Toad. They have known each other, as Linda points out, more than half their lives, and they obviously enjoy each other's company.

Thanks to his extraordinary talent and an enormous amount of trying, Tom Watson, formerly Flytrap Finnegan, has broken through to a level of the game that few players will ever reach. Watching him play can be an unusually pleasant experience, because his unique verve comes across to the watcher.

"He brings a special intensity and capacity for enjoyment to the game," says Sandy Tatum, a USGA vice-president from San Francisco who has been watching Watson play since he first arrived in Palo Alto. "If the shot he hits conforms to the plan he has in his mind, something very good happens, if you're close enough to see it. He lights up."

"It's an art form," said Watson at a recent tournament. "It's neat. It's neat to hit a good shot, a shot that you really like. Today I shot a 68, and I hit one neat shot. A wedge. I hit the shot just exactly the way I wanted to. The wind was blowing pretty sharp, left to right and a little downwind. I just hung it right there. I hit the shot up there and it took one big hop, and on the second hop it stopped and drew back about a foot and a half. That was a neat shot."

PHOTOWith fine approaches, like this to Augusta's 9th, Watson moved to the highest level of the game. PHOTOA thoughtful golfer, Watson never gives up, adjusting his strategy when his play becomes erratic. PHOTOWatson discovered his exotic and ebullient wife Linda in the chorus line of a junior-high musical.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)