After an overhaul that included a reorganization of everything from his nerve endings to his backswing to the way he walks, Denis Watson, heretofore known only as the winner of the Swaziland Pro-Am, has an excellent chance to make a name for himself that will be a lot more imposing than "the other Watson." Golf really is an equal opportunity employer. Otherwise, how else could a Rhodesian printer's 29-year-old son turned South African turned Floridian belt his way out of the bushes, to say nothing of the infirmary, and win three tournaments in the span of six weeks, set and match scoring records on celebrated courses and challenge that other Watson for PGA Player of the Year honors?
Such late-season heroics from a man who was 88th on the money list in 1983 have re-focused attention on the golf circuit, which was last seen back in the dog days of August being carried around on the triumphant shoulders of Lee Trevino at the PGA Championship. Then the tour said goodby to the Goodyear blimp and headed off to the hinterlands. Last week the PGA rolled into sleepy Columbus, Ga., hard by Fort Benning and the Chattahoochee River, for the Southern Open, the antepenultimate event of the season. The Southern is a rural tournament—Atlanta is 108 miles up Highway 185—that calls to mind an actor who only does commercials: The money is nice—a purse of $300,000 this year—but who knows your name?
Watson understands what that's like. This is his fourth year on the tour, and until recently he had the name but not the game. People kept asking him if he was related to Tom Watson—he isn't—and he never failed to notice the crestfallen looks on the faces of the volunteer scorers when he introduced himself on the first tee.
This year has been markedly different. Going into the Southern, Watson, now a resident of Venice, Fla., was fourth on the PGA money list with $405,924, more than double his earnings for the three previous years combined. He had won the World Series of Golf, the $1.2 million Panasonic tournament in Las Vegas and the Buick Open. He had also put up some fancy numbers at a couple of heavyweight tracks, tying the course record at Harbour Town on Hilton Head Island, S.C. with a 63 and setting one at Firestone in Akron in the World Series, with a stunning 62. That sort of scoring bespeaks more than luck.
Indeed, by last week he was breathing down the neck of Tom Whatshisname in the race for Player of the Year honors, a title Tom has won five times in the last seven years. Considering the Player of the Year stakes, and the fact that the money race is still up for grabs—Tom leads with $476,260; Mark O'Meara, another '84 surprise, is second with $457,473; Andy Bean is third with $418,995—it was a mite surprising that Boss Tom chose not to go to Columbus. He was like a baseball player trying to clinch the batting title by taking himself out of the lineup.
Chuck Rubin, Tom's agent-attorney-brother-in-law, defended his man's decision to wait things out back home in Kansas City. Tom, Rubin explained, had a whole bunch of important things to attend to, like a fund-raiser for the Stanford University golf team and taking care of the lawn. "These things are planned a year in advance," said Rubin.
Denis snickered when he heard that in Columbus. "They know exactly what's going on," he said. "I understand they're calling the press room every day."
"I'm just interested in what's going on because I'm a golf fan," protested Rubin, although he confirmed having made at least one Kansas City-to-Columbus call.
Before the Southern, Tom had a two-point lead over Denis in the Player of the Year standings, which are based on a complicated formula that belongs on the blackboard in an MIT math class. Tournament wins as well as earnings and scoring statistics are figured in. Suffice it to say that if D. Watson had won the Southern he would have moved past T. Watson into the POY lead. Failing that, Denis needed to earn $1,672 more than Bean to edge past him on the money list and thereby pick up two more Player of the Year points—which would put him in a tie with good Tom.
"It all comes down to when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter is aligned with Mars," said Rubin.
Meanwhile, Bean said, "If Denis is going to beat me this week, he's going to have to play some because I'm going to be tough." Professional wrestling can't be this much fun.
What happened is that Denis finished tied for 40th, to earn $1,051.33, while Bean finished tied for fifth, good for $11,400. When the dust cleared Denis was still two points behind Tom, with the Disney World and Pensacola tournaments remaining, and Tom was not scheduled to play in either one.
That Denis Watson could even be in such a position is a monumental upset. Though he showed sporadic promise when he joined the tour in 1981, illness, injury and misfortune dropped him to doleful 87th-, 74th- and 88th-place finishes in earnings for '81, '82 and '83, respectively, and he hadn't a single tournament victory. Watson, it turns out, is allergic to grass and trees—no small problem for a golfer—as well as a long list of foods. Often he would feel enervated. Last season, after a siege of sneezing and congestion, not to mention an emotionally draining divorce following a year of marriage, he underwent a complete remodeling. Today he takes a modular approach to golf. His swing, now regarded as one of the tour's finest, is only one component of his game which he keeps finely honed. He works on everything, from his psyche to physical fitness. He jogs, he does aerobic exercises, he lifts weights, he takes vitamins and he follows a careful diet. He's on a first-name basis with doctors across the country, and his initial stop at every tournament town is a supermarket, where he buys bottled water and—shades of Gary Player—a cache of fruits and nuts.
Watson is a proponent of rolfing—a method of deep muscle manipulation—and he claims, "My body has been completely realigned. I even walk differently." Michael Ogilvie, his rolfer, says Watson is an inch taller than he was a year ago. Ogilvie also says, "Denis now has a matched pair of feet," which has helped his balance. Matched feet do that, and they also make buying shoes easier.
Watson works with a sports psychologist, Bob Rotella, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, who Watson admits has become "my guru." Rotella has improved Watson's concentration and taught him how to relax under pressure.
"A lot of people think I'm crazy," says Watson. "But I know this stuff works. Just look at what it's done for me." After Watson made five birdies in six holes in Las Vegas a month ago, his caddy, Bruce Edwards, who, ironically enough, regularly totes Tom's bag, told Denis, "If you ever find out how good you are, you'll beat these guys every week."
But at the Southern Open, Watson was not his usual consistent self. His gallery was a little off, too. Often it included only Sandy Demby, an Atlantan who had bet $50 on him in Las Vegas and won $1,000 at 20-1 odds and thus felt she owed him some allegiance.
Watson opened with a 32 on his first nine on Thursday but bogeyed four of the last five holes and wound up with a 72. A 70 on Friday left him right at the 36-hole cut score of 142, two over par. "Two over?" said golf fan Rubin on the phone from Kansas City. "I thought even par would make the cut." Rubin is well aware that if Tom plays in either of the tour's last two events he risks bruising his eighth-place scoring average of 70.97, another way Tom might slip below Denis in the Player of the Year race.
Meanwhile, with his finish Sunday, Bean raised a new possibility. If he should overtake Tom Watson in the money standings, that would be another permutation that could realign Jupiter and make Denis Watson the Player of the Year. The formula thickens.