OPEN QUESTION

In golf Tom Watson is No. 1, but some prizes have eluded him. Next week he takes aim at the big one at Baltusrol
June 08, 1980

The middle-aged golf writer was following Tom Watson. He had achieved, more or less simultaneously with Watson (and in spite of a long detour behind the gallery ropes), the perimeter of the 7th green of the Augusta National course, where tributaries of traffic from the 3rd and 8th tees created an almost total strangulation of movement. From where he stood, there were five rows of moist fans encroaching on his vantage point, affording a view of Watson in action roughly equivalent to following the progress of a pot roast through the minute pane in an oven door.

The golf writer said it was his 26th Masters, and although he'd never been crazy about golf as subject matter, he liked being able to participate in this way. He compared it with holding hands at a sèance while the central figure levitated overhead. Other writers, he said, covered the Masters from the clubhouse veranda, soaking up information from dispatches and chance interviews, like war correspondents, but he preferred walking the course. He said getting out to watch Watson had become an increasingly enjoyable experience. He said that Watson had become his favorite, though he would never admit it to the public. He said that one by one he had been dispelling, at least to his own satisfaction, the "misconceptions" about Watson.

"Misconceptions?" his companion asked.

"Charisma," the golf writer said. "For one, they say Watson has no charisma, as if it were something great golfers carry around in their bags, like a sand wedge. I've been around them for 30 years, and only a very few—Snead, Palmer, Trevino—have what could properly be defined as charisma. Hogan had about as much charisma as a bounds marker. Byron Nelson was dull copy—his words—until he won 11 tournaments in a row. Then he became Lord Byron and was discovered to be eminently quotable. Nobody accused Nicklaus of having charisma until he lost all that weight and let his hair grow. Up to then he was just a fat, brusque-talking, deadpan guy who offended half the world by beating the ears off Mr. Palmer."

The golf writer paused to participate with the gallery in a collective breath-gathering as one of the players on the green set to putt. He bobbed his head and craned his neck in an effort to catch a fragment of the action until a groan signaled the gallery's failure to get the putt home.

The heroes of the game, the golf writer said, were and are different, one from another, as Hogan was from Snead, "but they all had one charismatic quality in common: they took fewer shots to get the ball in the hole. Somehow, that eventually translates into charisma. Watson is now doing that better than anybody. And he's been doing it for three straight years. Leading money-winner. Most tour victories. Best stroke average. Player of the Year every year. Not even Nicklaus did that three years in a row, and Watson's doing it again this year. He has replaced Nicklaus as top dog, no question. Fuzzy Zoeller says Watson has 'conquered the mind.' "

Yet, the writer's companion pointed out, Will Grimsley of the Associated Press thought Watson's lack of charisma was worth underlining before the Masters tournament when he wrote a tongue-in-cheek article listing "Lanny Watson and Tom Wadkins" among the possible winners. The joke, Grimsley said, was not aimed at in-and-outer Lanny Wadkins but at Watson for not being the identifiable hero he ought to be.

"A misconception," said the golf writer. "Watson happens to have a name that doesn't stick in your ear like Nicklaus or Trevino, that's all." Also, he said, there's the inevitable correlation between the critics' eyesight and where they have had their sentiments over the years. "Golf fans cling to their heroes longer than most. Look around out here—all the older people who follow golf. They wrung their last competitive birdie out of Palmer before they embraced Nicklaus. It takes time in golf to be loved. What the general public hasn't realized yet is what an attractive guy Tom Watson is."

The golfers wrapped up business on the 7th green to polite applause. Watson, making his par, smiled and waved modestly, exposing the familiar gap between his front teeth. His looks are almost always compared with Huckleberry Finn's—nothing more charismatic than that, of course—but they are more on the order of a mature Ronny Howard's, if one can imagine Howard ever maturing. Orthodontic flaws notwithstanding, at 30 Watson is a handsome man. Thick, rust-colored hair, wayward in the Kennedy fashion; a slightly hawk-nosed profile reminiscent of—well, why not?—Redford. The smallish pupils of his bright, very light-blue eyes give him a look of intense awareness, like that of a Weimaraner, and although he is of no more than medium build—5'9", 160 pounds—his components suggest athleticism: narrow waist and sloping shoulders; a back layered across with muscle; conspicuously strong legs, like Snead and Nicklaus; and, most distinguishing, forearms as outsized as Alley Oop's. From his first year (1971) Watson has been one of the longer hitters on the tour. As with Snead, however, the blacksmith proved to have the touch of a surgeon. Watching him on a putting green at the Tucson Open in 1972, Bert Yancey was heard to say, "There's the next Arnold Palmer."

"They all complain about the 'sameness' on the tour now," said the golf writer, moving to the 8th tee. "All the young guys with Hollywood tans and hairdos, who would leave identical imprints if you put their hands in wet cement. Or no imprints at all. It's not true. It's just a cop-out for the fact that TV ratings are plummeting. But even if it were true, you'd have to say that Watson at least looks like an improvement. But forget appearances. The thing about him I like is that he's bright as hell, without being arrogant, a nice twist. Some guys complain that he's a dull interview. That's a misconception. He's only as dull as an interviewer makes him. We've gotten used to Nicklaus as an expert on everything—golf courses, travel, fatherhood, wines. The guys call Nicklaus 'Karnac the Magnificent.' "

"Karnac?"

"The Johnny Carson character who gives you the answers before you give him the questions. At the press conference yesterday we were instructed to ask Jack only 'pertinent' questions. Don't waste his time with impertinence. But Watson might even be interested in what you have to say. And when you challenge his thinking a little, you discover he's up on almost everything—politics, the human condition...."

"Wine?"

"Yes, that, too. Almost all the younger players came out of college, but for most, college was just a place to spruce up their golf game. It had nothing to do with intellectual pursuits. Watson graduated. From Stanford. With a degree in psychology. Gary Player says that's a 'wonderful thing' for a golfer. He says golf is made for psychology—all the mental suffering, all those lonely walks between shots when you have to think about what to do instead of just reacting to a rap on the head. Gary digs mental suffering and brainy explanations for success in golf."

Watson's drive off the 8th tee evaporated into the warm Georgia air and then materialized, skipping, far up the fairway. As is his custom, he came off the tee as if he could hardly wait to get another crack at the ball. Actually, he appears not to walk so much as to thrust himself forward, his upper body pushing ahead like the prow of a ship plowing into an oncoming sea. His stride is so long and brisk that an ordinary man almost has to trot to keep up.

"It's much easier to write about style than about substance," the golf writer remarked as he moved down the edge of the fairway. "Watson manages his emotions very carefully. He doesn't throw clubs. He doesn't dance on the greens or crack jokes. He doesn't even hitch up his pants. Chi Chi Rodriguez says that golf is crying for more interesting personalities, that there are too many businessmen on the tour who take from it without putting back. Chi Chi thinks Watson is getting along better with the limelight and might even find himself liking it one of these days, but he wishes he had more pizzazz. A lot of people say that. That's another misconception because you don't have to roar to be a lion. Tom's not an introvert, he's just not a song-and-dance man. Trevino can't play without talking to everybody he comes in contact with on the course. Watson couldn't play if he did. And you'll never find him at the bar on Saturday night, catering to well-wishers. Fart of that is his background."

The golf writer said he had found Watson's background "a bundle of paradoxes, made to order for misconceptions." For example, though born into a conservative, affluent Midwestern family and a product of expensive private schools, he had been a budding liberal at Stanford, where he marched against the Vietnam war. (The golf writer noted that Watson had since made a "small but attractive" swing back to the right.) "He was taught the game as a little kid by his father, whose grandfather was Isaac Newton Watson, a lawyer who helped break the Pendergast ring in Missouri. His father preceded Tom at Stanford. They're very close."

Then, he said, there was the matter of the Kansas City Country Club, where Tom was virtually raised. "The country club. That's all you have to say in Kansas City. A bastion of social progress right out of Gentleman's Agreement. If your name is Goldstein, don't get your hopes up. So when Tom marries, whom does Tom marry? A very lovely, very sensitive and very outspoken Jewish girl. When they had their daughter last year, some boob asked him in what religion he and Linda were going to raise the child. Tom said, 'Shi'ite Muslim." I love it."

Watson reached the green far ahead of the golf writer, who, tiring perceptibly, pulled up short. He said that under the circumstances another ring of impenetrable flesh around a golf hole had no appeal for him. He thought he might cut across to the back side to watch Player suffer.

"But the worst misconception of all was that Watson was a choker," he said as he and his companion turned to go. "Golf writers are like boxing writers when it comes to gauging courage under fire. A boxer gets dumped a couple times, and all the columnists start advising him to retire. If writers and sportscasters retired every time they fell on their faces, there'd be an epidemic of job openings in the media. Golf writers can make a pair of double bogeys sound suspiciously like a yellow streak. Watson suddenly started winning. Then he started blowing tournaments in the final round, the way Snead used to, and words like 'apple' started appearing in stories. The New York Times speculated that maybe Watson was 'too smart.' A television golf analyst talked about "taking the pipe.' He didn't know a pipe from a pissant.

"What happened was that Watson dared to be the best—he said so at a banquet in Kansas City. That was his goal. Palmer says Watson is the best now. Nicklaus says Watson is the smartest. Wadkins says Watson works harder at it than anybody. But there are 200 guys out here who could win major tournaments, too. Instead, they stay in the inside lane where it's safer and take their 10th-place check and go home. The money that's available is staggering. Byron Nelson says if you can walk 72 holes you can win $100,000 on the tour these days, and it's true. To give you the best example: Snead has won 84 tournaments, way more than anybody ever, and has earned only $620,126. Tom Kite has won two tournaments and $866,205. Watson won more than $460,000 in 1979 alone. He put his head above the crowd, like Nicklaus and Palmer and Trevino did before him. But when he wasn't quite ready to win all the time, we called him a choker."

The writer shook his head. "One last story to sum him up," he said. "I was told this by Jack Weiss, who runs the New Orleans tournament. Weiss realizes that the New Orleans Open will never be the highlight of the tour, but it's a good tournament and one of the reasons why these guys can get rich without being conspicuous. Watson has been a regular at New Orleans over the years, and he and Linda and the Weisses have become close friends.

"Weiss was at Sawgrass for the Tournament Players Championship, and Tom called him up. He said, 'I have to see you, we've got a problem.' Weiss said he figured Tom was going to tell him he couldn't make his tournament this year. That happens a lot—a guy gets special treatment from the folks at a minor tournament when he's a nobody and then doesn't even say hello when he starts winning big. Weiss told Watson he needn't waste valuable time coming over, he could tell him on the phone, but Watson insisted. He said he and Linda and the baby would be right there. When Weiss put down the phone, his wife said that was typical of Watson—'He has too much class to just cancel out by telephone.'

"But when Watson got there, he didn't cancel at all. He said, 'Jack, I'm terribly sorry I've got a scheduling problem and won't be able to be there on Monday. I'll make it by Tuesday instead.' Weiss was elated, of course. 'That,' he said, 'is class.' "

The Kansas City Country Club has an understated elegance. The architecture is simple (no glassy entranceways, no synthetic facades); the color scheme, like the membership of 572, is all white. There is a long waiting list. On a day early this spring, when the club was closed for alterations, its most famous member drove his Honda Accord into the empty parking lot, removed his golf bag and shoes from the back and went around to the pro shop to prepare for an afternoon's work. "My office," Watson said, indicating the impeccable landscape, still mostly devoid of new growth. Ordinarily, he said, he does not invite visitors into his office; access to his impressive new four-bedroom French Provincial home in Mission Hills and to his private telephone number are equally limited. He had, however, only recently discovered to what lengths his efforts "not to open every phase of my life to 10 million people" had taken him. At a meeting with the editors of The Kansas City Star and The Times, he had asked why his hometown paper covered only the four major golf tournaments, and therefore did not report firsthand on his play in smaller—but still significant—events. Sports columnist Mike McKenzie explained that Tom was virtually a stranger to him, that in order to arrange for a chat he had to call Tom's agent, Chuck Rubin, who is also Tom's lawyer and brother-in-law. "I called your brother-in-law," McKenzie said, "and he said, 'You can see Tom in November.' This was July." The meeting provided a mutual breakthrough. The Star substantially increased its golf budget to allow McKenzie and others to cover more tournaments, and Watson gave McKenzie his private number. McKenzie now writes knowingly of what he calls the "fourth franchise in Kansas City," lumping Watson with the Chiefs, the Royals and the Kings.

Stan Thirsk, the pro at the club for 19 years, and two of his assistants were in the pro shop, Thirsk busying himself with taking inventory, his assistants with putting balls at a group of tees standing upside down on the carpet. The tees were arranged to approximate the placement of the pins in bowling. The object was to knock the tees down—to "strike"—with a single putt. The putter they were using had prongs protruding from the face of the blade on either side of the sweet spot. The least mis-stroke sent the ball skidding off at a crazy angle. Intrigued, Watson joined the contest.

"He can't resist competition," said Thirsk. "And if he's in it, he wants to win it." Lank and limby, with the faded hair and red-rimmed eyes of a man committed to a life in the sun, Thirsk has been Watson's mentor for almost 20 years, since the time Tom was 11. Ray Watson, Tom's father and original teacher, turned his son over to Thirsk at that point. Actually, Thirsk says, he first saw Watson at age six, hitting golf balls solidly with a cut-down spade mashie (roughly a 6½ iron) his father had got from Stewart Irons of St. Andrews. "At that age you don't have to throw a lot of information at a kid," Thirsk says. "You let him imitate. Tom's dad was a scratch golfer, a club champion. He has an excellent swing, long and upright. Tom simply imitated Ray Watson's swing."

But what is now perceived as the smooth, almost Snead-like Watson swing and the courtly Watson manner hide a ferocious drive to excel, says Thirsk, who considers it unfortunate that the drive is only likely to become apparent when Watson is away from the public eye. "He is always a gentleman, of course," says Thirsk, "but you should see him throw down the cards when he loses at bridge. About a month after he took a double bogey while leading in the final round of the 1978 PGA championship, he was driving us all to dinner, and the wives were saying what tremendous willpower he had shown, not blowing up. He said, 'Yeah, well, what I really wanted to say was——,' and he stomped on the gas pedal."

Even without the advantages an athlete is believed to derive from having endured grinding poverty or a broken home or a puny body, Watson's drive was gathering momentum in those earliest days. "Some of the members used to come in and say, 'Who's that cute little kid out there hitting balls? He's been out there for hours,' " says Thirsk. Before Watson was in his teens, he was competing regularly with his father, Thirsk and a longtime family friend, Bob Willits, another scratch golfer, playing $2 Nassaus. To toughen his hands for the game—and to cover his losses—he was required to trim his father's 125 rose bushes. Ray now proudly acknowledges that Tom was "beating me at 13, and outdriving me at 14," the year he won the city championship in match play. In the 36-hole finals, Watson was two holes down after the morning round. During the lunch break, his opponent spotted him playing pool in the clubhouse. "He's really worried, isn't he?" the opponent said. Watson won, four and two. A year later Thirsk matched Watson with Arnold Palmer in a charity benefit. "He always liked to play before crowds, that's why I knew he'd do well on the tour," Thirsk says. "With everybody there to see Palmer, Tom zinged one 300 yards off the 1st tee. Palmer said, 'Who's this?' Tommy loved it. He was a ham at 15."

Watson is no ham now, of course, and the rigid control that marks him is a reflection of his father, says Thirsk. At 62, Ray looks the way every successful, Midwestern-conservative insurance executive should: stern-eyed and poker straight, a graying man in gray suits and knit ties who never saw the need to abandon the crew cut. None of the Watson boys were babied, Thirsk says, but Tom "inherited his dad's stubborn streak," and it apparently made the two of them more compatible. Unlike older brother Ridge and younger brother John, Tom always came back for more. The father and son hunted and fished and played golf together, and Ray gloried in his boy's ability to eventually outdo him. "When he was 13 or 14," Ray says, "I'd be pulling on a bird, and as I was getting ready to shoot, it'd be falling."

Sportsmanship was nothing to be toyed with. Ray himself had gone through a club-throwing period as a youngster. Thirsk likes to repeat the well-known story of the time when, while playing with three older men, the teenage Ray threw one club too many. "Everyone got a club out of his bag and threw it at Ray's legs," Thirsk says. "He was hopping up and down, and they said, 'Go, and don't come back until you can play like a gentleman.' "

When Watson was competing in the Western Amateur in Rockford, Ill. as a 19-year-old and was trying to "be cool when I had nothing to be cool about," he was quoted in the newspapers as complaining that Rockford "doesn't have much of a night life." The next voice he heard was that of his father, calling long distance: "What's this about 'night life'? " As late as 1975, at a banquet in Kansas City, when Watson said he wanted to be the best, his father told him, "Say it to me, but not in public." Even today, Ray wastes no flattery on his son. "His swing is too long," the father says. "Tommy will never see the day he can hit like Snead." Then the old man adds coyly, "But who can?"

Young Tom won four Missouri state amateur championships, but then when he went to Stanford he went without a golf scholarship, and a career on the tour was only an idea in the back of his mind. His college play was spotty; he won only two tournaments in four years and was, Thirsk says, "constantly tearing his swing apart." It was not until his senior year in 1971 that he decided he wanted to try the tour. The revelation did not thrill the girl he wanted to marry.

Linda Rubin first met Thomas Sturges Watson when they were in junior high. A dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty, Linda was trying out for a lead in The Pirates of Penzance when Stage Manager Watson advised her to get her tush out there on the stage. She advised him to manage his mouth. True love bounced along from there. On their first date, he was caught smoking a cigarette and was suspended from school for three days. Upon graduation from high school, Watson went west to Palo Alto, Linda east to a junior college in Pennsylvania—"to be as far away as possible." After completing her two years there, however, she enrolled at Mills College for women in Oakland—"to be as close as possible." When Watson asked her to marry him, she said no. Being part of a close, success-oriented family of her own, Linda doubted the practicality of slogging around after a golf ball for a living. She wanted her husband mostly in one place, and home by six.

After his first year on the tour, Watson came to Thirsk for a talk. "He hadn't won anything, but his dad and Linda's dad and Willits and a couple others were sponsoring him, and he was encouraged about his game," Thirsk recalls. " 'But when the sun goes down,' he said, 'I hate it.' He said he was going to ask Linda again." They discussed the possible reaction at the club.

"Some people can be vicious," Thirsk told him. "You may hear some things. Does it matter?"

"No."

"Then marry her."

Linda, says Thirsk, is now Tom's "greatest asset." She doesn't just "fill him with chicken wings and send him out to play." She handles the books, figures the expenses right down to cab fares, makes sure he gets the best room and the best car and then, when it's all over, she writes appreciative thank-you notes to appreciative tournament directors. "They're a team," says Thirsk.

The game with the tees broke up. Watson had made a strike. He loaded his clubs on a cart and zipped out to the empty course, cutting across familiar fairways. "I know how lucky I am," he said, driving with one hand. "Doing what I love to do, knowing there is no way I can justify the money I make [Watson is now third on the alltime money-winners list with $2,030,958]. But that's what the freedom we have in this country is all about. Nobody in China can do that.

"When I went to Stanford I was taking economics courses. I switched to psychology, not because I had any plans to use it. I just decided I didn't want to be a vice-president of a corporation. I figured the thing I did best was the thing I wanted to do most, play golf. It's never dull for me, never a job. Every time I tee up it's a new challenge."

"When you said you wanted to be the best, was that a legitimate goal?" he was asked.

"Yes. I think I'd want to be the best at anything I did. That might not be realistic, but it's the way I feel." He said that money was never the object, although he realized it is easy to say that when the pressure to put food on the table is not what it used to be for professional golfers.

"A year or so ago Mark McCormack was trying to drum up a million-dollar winner-take-all match between you and Nicklaus. Sandy Tatum, president of the USGA, argued that neither of you would be interested in such an event, that it would be a sham."

"Absolutely. It would cheat the game, because it's not the way the game is played."

"But if you had a choice of winning a million dollars or the U.S. Open, which would it be?"

"That's a loaded question. You want me to say the Open, because I haven't won it and want to more than anything. To be considered the best, you have to win the biggest tournaments. But it would depend on where I was in my career. If I was struggling to make ends meet, I might take the money and run."

"Now?"

"I'd love to win the Open. I'm probably putting too much pressure on myself now to do it, like Sam Snead did. Last year I took two weeks off before the Open. I never did that before. And I began to lose the mechanics. I was fighting it even before I left for Inverness. I tried to tell everybody, but they wouldn't listen. I shot 75-77 and missed the cut. I won't take two weeks off again."

At a remote place on the periphery of the course, Watson pulled up. A large expanse of open ground spread before him. He emptied a bag of new balls onto the ground, speckling the brown grass still bent hard by the winter. He said that he never resented having to wait for the spring thaws; that the various seasons had given him a chance to play other sports—he was a good high school quarterback and basketball guard. Later he had found the winter layoff from golf refreshing.

He began to hit the glistening white balls, first with a short iron. Little patches of earth tore away. Down range, an enlarged duplicate of the pattern of balls in front of him began to evolve.

"The best thing my father taught me was to learn to hit all the shots," he said. "High, low, left, right. 'Hit with a purpose,' he said. 'Make something happen.' Working the ball is a lost art on the tour—being able to play a full range of shots under all conditions. You have to play no matter how bad the weather is, and you'd better learn how. I like bad weather. You can make comebacks in bad weather. It's tougher to rally when conditions favor everybody."

He talked about tournaments he had won in rain and wind, about winning the Heritage on Hilton Head Island last year when "I was so sick that I knew if I lost I'd have a good excuse." He talked about the one-iron he hit 190 yards dead to the pin at the 2nd hole at Muirfield during the 1979 Memorial, when the wind-chill factor was 13° and he was so bundled up in a rain suit that he looked inflated.

Yes, he said, he frequently found himself the last man off the practice tee, and dusk often caught him on the putting green. He said it was a matter of wanting to be there. "Snead used to say, 'To win you have to have talent and desire, but desire is first.' When I started, I had no illusions. Nothing was expected of me. I had to qualify for every tournament for two years, and that meant I had to work hard. I believe in hard work."

He switched irons. Down range a new pattern began to form, on the edge of a steep incline and a tangle of trees. He called the spot "coffin corner," and shot after shot went there, tempting the trees and the brink of the incline.

He said that tempo had always been his biggest problem—swinging "too fast." Now he was concentrating on opening his right hip a little more on the take-away. He said he had been "locking it in." The difference was undetectable to the untrained eye; he had to exaggerate to show it.

"You can't conquer this game," he said. "But when you can get close, it's the best. You have to be dedicated because it's a naturally frustrating game. A six on a hole can ruin a day, or lose a tournament. That's the first thing you learn as a kid, how frustrating it is. The right grip is an unnatural grip. You can't blame the club, or the conditions, or the weather. You can't blame the team, because it's just you. If you miss, you have to come out here and find out why.

"There are no great secrets. You have to have good setup, good posture. You have to have good hand-eye coordination. You have to have balance. Nobody with bad balance ever wins at golf. I've never seen Snead go off balance. Once, maybe." Striking the ball, he said, required the release of tension, but the tension "had to hold through impact, like a uniformly uncoiling spring." That factor holds true no matter how the swing looks, he said. "Trevino has a flat swing, but he holds it through the impact zone."

Watson imitated the flat Trevino swing, producing a facsimile that was remarkable in its accuracy. The ball flew down the fairway and landed in the middle of the target area.

He began to examine the game as others have played it and are playing it. Intoxicated by his own deep interest, he used words like "supinate" and "pronate," and he talked about Hogan and Nelson and Tommy Bolt as if he had been a witness to their heydays. He demonstrated a particularly awkward-looking swing. "Bobby Locke came over here from South Africa and swung like this [the ball flew into coffin corner], and he beat everybody. They hated him." He said that of the players today Palmer had the best grip, Pate had good tempo and Irwin and Wadkins had good swings. Knudson and Sneed, too. "But I'm very critical of swings," he said. He said he still goes out to watch Snead. No, he said, he does not watch Nicklaus.

He switched to a wood. The ball took off, straight and high. That was a mistake, he said; he never really tried to hit a ball perfectly straight because it was too hard to do consistently and increased the margin of error. He tried always to hook or slice, fade or draw, gauging the amount needed.

He began to hit balls as he would on specific holes on specific courses, announcing beforehand their unique demands: "Here, the 10th at Augusta—you've got to have a sweeping hook." The ball instead went almost dead straight. He grinned and raised his eyebrows.

"What you're always after is the repetitive swing," he said. "The swing you can count on all the time, especially under pressure. In Japan in 1976, I hit a 40-yard wedge shot that I thought was about the prettiest shot I'd ever made. I said, 'Why can't I do that every time?' It's an endless quest. Hogan said golf's a game of missed shots, and he's right. When you miss, you have to have enough faith in your swing so that you won't keep missing. Your confidence has to advance with your ability to make the shots. If they don't advance together, one will bring the other down."

That's what happened to him in those awful breakdowns before 1977, he said. "Some of them were chokes, when I was in a position to win and didn't. The criticism was a little unfair because what people didn't realize was that I just wasn't a good enough player. I couldn't count on my swing."

In 1974, at age 24, Watson led the U.S. Open after three rounds at Winged Foot. On the last day, in the rain, he had nine bogeys and a 79 and finished five strokes behind Hale Irwin. A year later, at Medinah, he opened with a 67 and a 68, tying an Open record, but then ballooned to a 78 and 77 to finish in the ruck. Preparing to hit out of a trap on the third day—he says he will never forget it—Watson became aware of a man whispering to him from the gallery, "Remember Winged Foot!" Like Javert dogging Jean Valjean, the man trailed around after him, repeating the grim advice whenever he was near enough. Watson says it did not make him mad, but it stung him.

After that, there were sensational last-round crackups at the Tournament Players Championship and the Heritage Classic in 1977, and those who had predicted his flight to the top were obliged to wonder if Watson would ever get off" the runway. But out of these failures a friendship was born that was to help him significantly. Byron Nelson had taken an interest in Watson in 1974 when he followed him step for step the last nine holes of the Doral Open. Nelson says he "liked his makeup," his "aggressiveness" and his "power of concentration." He even liked Watson's "freckle-faced grin."

While Linda waited in the rain outside the clubhouse at Winged Foot after her husband's pratfall in 1974, Nelson went into the locker room, "betting he'd still be in there by himself." Watson was, Nelson says, "and the most down I ever saw him. He's such a positive thinker, he never really gets down. 'Sorry, Tom,' I said and got him a Coke. 'Want to talk about it?' He said, 'I don't have much to say.' I told him these things happen when you're on the verge of your first major championship and really don't understand the pressure you've put on yourself if you haven't got your game in order. He looked up and said, 'What in the world did I do wrong?' I told him a few things—his motion was a little fast, as I remember, and he needed to relax his right side some and keep his legs driving through the shots—but nothing really major. I said, 'Anytime you want to talk....' "

Watson is now a member of the Preston Trail Country Club, where Nelson plays in Dallas, and the Watsons are frequent guests at the Nelson ranch in nearby Roanoke. Two or three times a year Watson catches a morning flight out of Kansas City, meets Nelson at Preston Trail, practices three or four hours and flies home for dinner. Mainly, what Nelson gives Watson is something his father and Thirsk could not possibly provide—an understanding of what it takes to win in major competition.

Before the 1975 British Open, Watson and Nelson chatted before each round. On the last day, with bad weather setting in, Nelson met him in the press tent. "Tom, I haven't been giving you much advice, but I'd like to today," he said. "You don't ordinarily carry one shot on to the next, but this is one time you will have to forget what happens. You might miss three shots in a row here, then make the next one and still be O.K." Watson sank a 20-foot birdie putt on the last hole of regulation play to tie and won the playoff.

But it was not until 1977, Watson said, that his ability finally came level with his confidence. In Barcelona, playing in a special tournament with eight other golfers, he shot a 61 on the last day and said he felt as if he had found "the repetitive swing." The next week at Turnberry in Scotland, he rallied from three shots down to take the British Open from under Jack Nicklaus' nose. The last 36 holes were Watson vs. Nicklaus and have been called "the finest head-to-head competition ever played." On the final day, Watson shot a 65 to Nicklaus' 66. His knockout blow was a 60-foot birdie putt on the 15th hole. At the Masters earlier that year, the two had been tied for the lead with only two holes to play, and Watson won by two shots.

The speckled patterns multiplied down the practice range. Finally, Watson took out his driver, set up and swung. The impact made a crisp, cracking noise, the unmistakable sound of a well-hit golf ball. The ball got up slowly, like a large bird coming off a perch, and then appeared to gain speed and height all at once until, at the top, it seemed to suspend itself in the air, like a tiny satellite. Watson, still poised in his follow-through, let his right hand come off the club and his out-sized right arm swing to his side. His arm dangled there, pendulum-like, as he watched the ball land beyond the last row of trees and bound across a road.

Tom Watson's favorite restaurant in Kansas City is a barbecue joint on the east side of town called Arthur Bryant's. Owned and operated by blacks, Bryant's serves cafeteria style; the dècor is functional, the barbecue sauce uncommonly hot. Watson and Chuck Rubin call the sauce "the elixir." Rubin has a scar on his desk he swears resulted from a spilled order to go.

When friends come to town, Watson carts them to Bryant's for lunch. They wait in line just like everybody else and, like everybody else, scramble for a place to sit. This is not an attempt on Watson's part to affect the common touch but, rather, a manifestation of his appreciation of good food. When he is on the road, Watson gravitates to such places in a never-ending search for home-style cooking and unaffected ambience.

At Jacksonville Beach, where he goes when playing at Sawgrass, he is most likely to wind up at The Homestead. There he can order fried chicken wings, his favorite food, in quantities suited to his hefty appetite. On the day before this year's TPC, Watson escorted two friends to The Homestead and, after a round of drinks, negotiated with the waitress for an increase in the standard order of chicken wings.

"How many do you usually serve?" he said.

"Four, Tom," said the waitress, a sturdily built blonde with a slight overbite. She had recognized him immediately and was obviously pleased to have him drop by.

"Can I have six?"

"Of course," she said, grinning.

Before the order was served, the waitress reappeared carrying a baby, presenting the child to Tom as if to receive a blessing.

"Yours?" he asked.

"No," she said. "I'm not married. I'm one of the few people around here who isn't."

Watson smiled without comment. When she left he said, "I think she just told us she wishes she were."

"I think she just told you more than that," a friend said.

The meal practically covered the table, and Watson attacked it with enthusiasm. Conversation was loose and freewheeling. He seemed to enjoy it most when there was something to argue about.

"Whom do you like for President?"

"Nobody," he said. He said his politics, in effect, had become the politics of frustration. The economy. The foul-ups overseas. It was suggested that foreign affairs could make a hacker out of anybody and that Carter might not have been aware of what the Iranians would do if we took the Shah in.

"I don't believe that for a minute," Watson said.

"Were you into politics at Stanford?"

"I went there pro-Vietnam. I wrote an English paper defending our involvement. The professor wrote back a long answer—'I'm not sure you have the complete picture.' He suggested some books. I finally realized we didn't belong in Vietnam. I voted for McGovern."

But he said he was not a doctrinaire, and although he might not be considered your typical "right-wing golf pro," he was a long way from being a liberal. He had supported Gerald Ford in '76. He said golf pros "are at a disadvantage, living as we do. I don't talk to people on welfare. I never see the side of life Linda has seen. She worked for the Alameda County Welfare Department in California, helping with ghetto kids. But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate their plight."

And, he said, his older brother Ridge "keeps me honest." Ridge had been in the Peace Corps in Thailand, had preceded Tom at Stanford and is now getting a master's degree in enology.

"Enology?"

"Wine. He's a wine expert." Tom said his younger brother, John, was now acting in San Francisco. He said he didn't think his father was crazy about that.

The conversation ebbed and flowed. Watson said he had taken flying lessons in 1977 to "relax," only to discover that he was taking his life into his hands, and what was so relaxing about that? Somebody used the word "atavistic" and he stopped to ask what it meant. He said he knew how easily words got abused. He had recently written a letter to Golf Magazine protesting having been quoted as being anti-nuclear power. "The fact is, I'm in favor of it," he said. "It makes more sense to build nuclear power plants than it does to stockpile nuclear bombs." He wondered why more people didn't protest that.

He said that the one thing about the tour that remains the same year after year is how family matters get to be prominent topics, "because in crisis they can affect you greatly." He and Linda had had friendships battered by divorce: the John Mahaffeys, and the Hubert Greens. Linda, he said, had gotten a little gun shy, holding marriage as sacred as she does. She could not sanction the idea of "having a little something on the side." He said they now often shared living quarters on the road with Bob Murphy and his wife, Gail, and "got along great."

The question of "image" came up, and he wondered how one gets to be a "colorful man." He pointed out that he found New York cab drivers extremely colorful, but so rude that he hated to take a cab in New York. "You don't have to be ugly," he said. "Is it colorful to throw your clubs and curse little kids?" He said there seemed to be no end to what people imagined to be colorful. He thought birdies were colorful, but other people looked for other things when a golfer came into view. Somebody actually counted the number of times Arnold Palmer hitched his pants during a round of golf.

"How many times did he do it?"

"Over 300."

One of his companions wondered if what people really wanted in their heroes was character, not color.

"I'm not so sure," Watson said. "Did Babe Ruth have character?"

Once, he said, he came close to hiring Mark McCormack to do his image-making, but could not quite come to grips with the idea of committing himself to so many outside obligations. "The things an agent generates, he deserves a share of," he said. "But not your golf game." Chuck Rubin works strictly on a lawyer's basis: for an hourly wage. Business, in fact, is booming, Watson said. He is linked in one way or another with Armstrong tires, Ram sporting goods, Fila clothes, Dexter shoes, E.F. Hutton investments, Dunlop golf clubs of Japan and Toshiba television of Japan. Rubin handles quality control. But Watson has no interest in spreading himself too thin, as sports heroes are wont to do when the chances to cash in come acalling. He said that he fully expects to reach a point any day now when he will have to say, "That's it, that's all I have time for." Already he resents some of the time he has been forced to spend away from Linda and the baby.

"What about Nicklaus?" he was asked. Did he think he deserved to be called the new Nicklaus?

"Not really. You're talking about maybe the greatest golfer of all time. He's won 17 major championships, I've won three. When you compare anybody with the greatest, you need more to go on. I'd accept the responsibility of being his successor, but I'm really just starting."

Watson did not win the TPC. He finished third, two strokes back of the winner, Trevino. In only five tournaments this year has he not seriously challenged for the lead, the Masters, in which he wound up tied for 12th, being one of them. He then went on an incredible tear in which he won his next three tournaments, leading from first round to last in each of them. By the start of June, his money winnings for the year had soared to more than $350,000, and he was once more the force to reckon with as the U.S. Open drew near.

Linda arrived at Sawgrass with six-month-old Meg in her arms. The next day, having secured a baby-sitter, she put on golf shoes and trooped around after her husband, chatting happily with friends and new acquaintances as she walked. She is a marvelously animated young woman and clearly enjoys having an audience.

She said that she'd never had it in mind to be Tom's "silent partner" and that maybe she had been a little too outspoken at the start. "I made waves," she said. "Some of the wives told me you don't do the things I did when you're a rookie. But most of those who told me that aren't out here anymore." As far as "problems" at the Kansas City Country Club were concerned, there really hadn't been any. She said she "couldn't believe some of the stupid things people say, but I think they bother Tom more than they do me. Like my father used to tell me, 'They're the losers, not you.' "

She compared the first night she and Tom had spent on the road in 1973—a $10-a-night room in a Ramada Inn with one lamp and a 15-watt bulb "to hide the dirt"—to the posh town house they had been able to rent at Sawgrass, and she noted wryly how, as Tom became more prominent and prosperous, more and more feminine eyes turned his way—without turning Tom's head. "You can spot 'em," she said. "The platinum hair, the spiked heels. I heard one of them say she just loved Tom's tush. Another one came up to me on the course and said, 'Hi, Linda,' as if she knew me—or wanted me to think she knew Tom. I could hardly keep from laughing. I said to Tom, 'Who was that?' She obviously didn't know Tom Watson."

According to Linda, the sad thing is that not many people really know the Tom Watson she knows. The Watson who sings to his baby daughter. The Watson who, when playing in the L.A. Open last February, spent his time away from the course consoling a friend whose wife was dying of cancer. The Watson who, with boyish pleasure, engaged in a fruit-throwing contest between balconies at a hotel after a tournament in Hawaii. And the Watson who cried after winning the 1977 British Open at Turnberry in Scotland.

They were getting ready to celebrate that victory, she said, and had gone to the window to look out over the emptying course. It was near dusk, and suddenly they heard some bagpipes—some pipers walking up a road toward the hotel—and "there was just something about it." And all of a sudden they were both crying.

"Tom is Tom," she said. "He's never going to be anything else, or try to be things he isn't. He's not the automaton he's made out to be. If people can't see the human being, the warm, compassionate, loving man that I know, they're just misreading him, that's all."

The next day turned up raw and breezy at Sawgrass. Playing on the 3rd hole, Watson was interrupted by the crash of a chain of portable toilets flopping over from a gust of wind. He quickly sent his caddie, Bruce Edwards, to make sure nobody was trapped inside. "What a way to go," he said, imagining the headline "Man drowns in Port-O-Let."

He had had two straight bogeys when he reached the 8th hole. The 8th borders the row of town houses that included the one he and Linda and the Murphys were occupying. As he moved along the fairway, striding after his drive, he suddenly turned and ducked under the restraining ropes and walked over to where Linda was standing holding Meg. He kissed the baby tenderly and crooned softly, "Oh, you must have been a beautiful baby...."

FOUR PHOTOSA 45-foot putt that just missed on the last day of the Colonial cost Watson plenty: a shot at first place and a $254,000 prize. THREE PHOTOSWatson's assets include his wife, Linda, who keeps track of everything; his father, Ray, who introduced him to golf; Stan Thirsk, his first pro, who did not foul up his natural talent; and his incandescent smile. PHOTOBacked up by Linda, Watson won the 1977 British Open. PHOTOPalms of victory clapped at the 1977 Masters.

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)