Jack Nicklaus on Tom Watson: "Tom is playing by far the best golf of anyone in the game right now. You'd have to ask him what his goals are, but I think he would agree that his performance in the U.S. Open, British Open, Masters and PGA over the next years will determine his ultimate position in the game. Let's see what happens in the next four or five years. He's one heck of a player, and one heck of a guy. And he's got a good head on his shoulders.
"It's not fair to Tom to compare him to me right now. He came to the tour in a different way than I did. He went through the qualifying school, then had to qualify on Mondays, then had to learn to make the cut, then learn to make money, and then learn how to win. I don't say this because I was able to come out and win immediately. I say it with admiration for how hard he's worked and how he's conducted himself."
Arnold Palmer on Tom Watson:
"I'm ready to hand the crown over to him, and it looks like Jack is, too. Tom's extra cocky and very confident, two very necessary things to becoming a great player."
June 3, 1979
Miller Barber on Tom Watson:
"I chased the man all week. The closer I got the harder he was to see. There's something intangible about him. I don't know what it is, or how to describe it, but truly great athletes have something that sets them apart, something the rest of us don't get given. Tom Watson has it. He's willing to make the sacrifices you need to make, he's got the drive, the ambition and, Lord knows, the ability. He's on the verge of being one of the game's great ones."
Tom Watson won another golf tournament last week. Of course. He won the Memorial, or the Nicklaus, as some people think of it, at the Muirfield Village course on the pastoral outskirts of Columbus, Ohio. He won it easily, by three strokes over Barber, with rounds of 73, 69, 72 and 71 for a three-under-par total of 285. On that particular golf course, and under the cold, wet, windy and generally horrible conditions that existed throughout the week, his performance was among the most brilliant of 1979. In fact, the three-under-par 69 Watson shot on Friday afternoon during the most miserable weather of all was the finest single round that has been played all year—or in many years, for that matter. That round wrapped up the tournament for him, if not statistically then at least psychologically.
On a day when the average score of the field was 78.75 because the temperature was 45 degrees, the wind was howling at 30 mph and the wind chill factor made it feel like 13 degrees, on a day when every ski cap and pair of warm gloves in Columbus had been purchased, on a day when virtually every player in the field staggered into the clubhouse and slung his rain suit across the room, kicked a table leg and began whimpering about a round of 85, Watson hit 16 greens in regulation, made three birdies and no bogeys. In reality, his 69 was more like nine under par for the day, for that day.
Chi Chi Rodriguez summed it up the best in the locker room. After listening for an hour to the other competitors complaining about the impossible conditions—"This ain't golf" was the theme—Rodriguez got everyone's attention. He said, "Hey, guys, tell me something. How come the best player in the world is leading the tournament?"
It's rather terrifying to dwell on what Watson has been up to lately. Last Sunday's victory was his fourth of the year. He had previously won the Heritage, the Tournament of Champions and the Byron Nelson Classic. He has also been second four times. In fact, Watson has finished sixth or better in 10 out of the 14 events he has entered. With his Memorial paycheck, Watson's earnings for the year have risen to $353,874, which is already the second-highest total ever, second to the $362,429 Watson won last year. And last week was still in the month of May?
It seems to be an absolute certainty that this year Watson will become golf's first half-million-dollar man.
Of his Friday round, the round that enabled him to coast along through Saturday and Sunday with leads of up to seven strokes, Watson said, "It was one of the best rounds I've ever played. There was nothing easy or comfortable about it. I just made very few mistakes, because when you're playing well, you're in a good frame of mind. The key was keeping my hands warm. I guess I'm used to playing in this kind of weather. It's good Kansas City weather."
Lanny Wadkins had led the Memorial after the first round with a 69, but it became Watson's tournament on Friday when his very different kind of 69 gave him a four-stroke lead over Nicklaus, Tom Kite and Peter Jacobsen. After the third round, he was still ahead by four shots, Barber being the nearest challenger. Nicklaus kept his hometown admirers happy by hanging close for three days, but two double-bogeys and a triple-bogey through 12 holes on Sunday nudged Jack toward a 79 and a finishing tie for 27th place.
There are a few other measures of how much better Watson is now than anyone else. The second man on the money list, Lanny Wadkins, is almost $200,000 behind. Watson has almost three times as many Ryder Cup points as anyone else. In just the last three years, he has won more than $1 million. He is now the favorite in any tournament he enters, whether Nicklaus is around or not. Last week Watson was asked if it made him feel any different knowing he was supposed to beat everyone, every week.
"It's more fun than wondering whether I could beat myself," he said, and grinned.
Thanks to the founder and host, Mr. Nicklaus, there were other vital matters to discuss last week besides Tom Watson and the Columbus weather. Nicklaus, it seems, had recently decided to inject a certain amount of pessimism into his view of the PGA tour. He had done so both in print and out of it, and reaction to some of his views made the Muirfield Village locker room a livelier place than usual.
Nicklaus had said bluntly, "We have antagonized sponsors by forcing them to raise their purses. We have failed to build significant tournaments. We have failed to build new stars." To many, his choice of the word "we" meant nobody else but tour Commissioner Deane Beman, whether or not Nicklaus was willing to admit it publicly.
While a majority of the other pros agree that the tour does have its problems—largely in scheduling and in handling the increasing number of players—most tended to disagree with what Nicklaus had to say about the non-emergence of new stars and about the building and improving of events. Nicklaus himself certainly believes that his own tournament, the Memorial, is significant. And he obviously had not failed to notice that Watson had become an authentic new star and for the third consecutive year was, by any measure you cared to use, the finest golfer in the world. Aside from Watson, the pros point to such as Lanny Wadkins, Jerry Pate, Andy Bean, Hubert Green, Fuzzy Zoeller and Ben Crenshaw, among others, as examples of different personalities who have begun to interest the public.
"We've got plenty of great golfers and plenty of goofballs out here," said Green. "I think the press in general hasn't worked hard enough to get to know them. If you ask me what the biggest problem facing the tour is, I'll say the press." Then Green amended himself. "The local press," he said. "Most of the time, they either write about Nicklaus if he's there, or else they write about why Nicklaus isn't there."
The majority of the pros snickered at Nicklaus' statement about antagonizing sponsors. They doubted that Beman had antagonized any more sponsors over the years than Nicklaus had by refusing to play in a large number of tournaments in cities or on courses he doesn't like. Nicklaus has been aware of the criticism, but his schedule has been dictated by his quest for major championships. And, as he slides into the role of elder statesman, he has said that he wants to appear at all of the places he has bypassed.
Because Nicklaus is now both an immortal and a sponsor, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether he's expressing true concern about the health of the game or speaking from the platform of self-interest. "Interest in golf is dropping off," he was saying last week. "We need special events other than the four majors. By special events I mean tournaments that are different from each other."
That translated into: the Memorial should have a smaller, more exclusive field, which Beman won't grant.
"There is too much sameness," Nicklaus said. "Deane wants to take strong events and give them weaker dates, and take weak events and give them strong dates. You'll never see the Tournament Players Championship in a weak date."
Translation: the Memorial has a weaker TV date than the Tournament Players Championship, so the TPC has the inside track to becoming a fifth major championship, if there ever is to be such an event. The TPC is now the event with the strongest field of all, so decreed by Beman's rules making participation compulsory.
Nicklaus also suggested that television is diminishing its golf audience by making every tournament look remarkably the same. If the only thing the viewer ever watches is Bill Rogers hitting a shot, then Bob Byman hitting a shot on another hole, then Wayne Levi hitting a shot on still another hole, and if the viewer never sees a close-up, a stroll down the fairway, or a golfer scratching his head, he will not likely be able to tell them apart. In rebuttal, CBS-TV producer-director Frank Chirkinian said, "You have an exciting telecast when you have an exciting tournament."
Whatever the problems are with the tour—if there really are any major difficulties—the hottest debate of all at Muirfield centered on a plan being considered by the PGA for a "second tour."
Roughly, the plan would call for the game's top 100 players, based on the money list from year to year, to comprise the field on the "real tour." They would be eligible to compete in the top 30 events for all of those $300,000 purses. And everyone knows which tournaments those would be. A Crosby and a Colonial would make it, a Pensacola and a Quad Cities probably wouldn't.
Meanwhile, the game's other 150 to 200 players would compete on the "other tour" in tournaments offering only $150,000 in purses. At the end of each official season, the top 20 or 30 players from the lower level would move up to the big time, and the lowest 20 or 30 out of the top 100 would either move back to the minors or go home. All of this assumes that Beman can find 30 sponsors in 30 areas who want to put up $150,000 for the privilege of watching Ed Sabo, Tim Simpson and Jeff Mitchell play golf, with their event untelevised.
"I think it's a good idea," Nicklaus said, naturally. "It would relieve the crush. It would provide opportunities for more players. It would take golf to cities which don't have it, to regions of the country which don't have it. And it would create new stars. Somebody would come along and win six tournaments on the second tier and would arrive on the major tour as an accepted 'name.' "
Palmer doesn't agree.
"It's a very bad idea," he said. "We would be drawing a line we don't have to draw. The best players pretty much play in the same tournaments as it is now, but we don't call the others 'minor league.' The minute you designate something as minor league, you've got an uphill battle."
Green is aware of the dangers, but he believes the two-tour idea is the only answer for the future. "We've got to make it work with everybody's help, including TV, or there's not going to be any place to put everybody out here," he said. "It's in the best interest of all our players, not just those of us who would start out on the big circuit. Besides, there would be good golf played on the other tour."
The concept apparently appeals to most players, elite and otherwise, primarily because a second tour not only would provide a training ground for younger players but would also be a nice grazing land for fading veterans. Hence, the membership will likely vote in favor of trying to work out a plan for the major and minor league when Beman pounds a gavel at some point during the summer.
Nonetheless, Hale Irwin cut straight to the heart of the problem when he said. "I don't know how in the world you're going to get a sponsor to volunteer to be minor league."
Of course, if Tom Watson just goes on winning every golf tournament, even the major leagues are going to get pretty dull after a while. The best solution to that may be to put Watson in a league all his own. He seems to belong there now.