Nov. 09, 1987
Nov. 09, 1987

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Nov. 9, 1987

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Point After


Tom Watson, golf's slumping superstar, ended his drought, at the Nabisco

As Tom Watson Sank the winning putt at the $2 million Nabisco Championships of Golf in San Antonio, he flung his visor into the air with enough pure joy to make even a $360,000 first prize seem incidental. Just as money was not Watson's passion when he was winning 36 tournaments, including eight majors, it clearly wasn't on Sunday as he broke a three-year victory drought in one of the sweetest moments of his career. It may be instructive that the yellow visor that floated over the crowd lacked a money-making logo.

This is an article from the Nov. 9, 1987 issue Original Layout

Very little else at the Nabisco did. Golf's orgy with corporate America produced the sport's biggest purse ever. For finishing two strokes behind Watson's wire-to-wire 65-66-69-68—268 on the par-70 Oak Hills Country Club course, Chip Beck earned $216,000. Curtis Strange, who finished last in the 30-man field, 25 strokes back, received $32,000.

Only Strange even came close to resembling a loser. His high scoring for the week cost him Player of the Year honors; Paul Azinger, with a fourth-place finish at the Nabisco, edged him for that title. But Strange did pocket an additional $175,000 for winning the 1987 Nabisco Grand Prix points race, bringing his single-season winnings to a record $925,941.

It was a year in which the Tour had only five multiple winners (the fewest since 1963), but thanks to a record $31.5 million in prize money and a first-time-ever $1 million bonus pool, 14 players made more than $500,000 in official money. Before this year, that figure had been reached only five times.

So much money, combined with the safeguard of the accursed all-exempt list of 125 players, can make the Tour numbingly comfortable for its less driven members. Human nature being what it is, when there is nearly nothing to lose, it may be harder to summon the wherewithal to win. The best players have long been considered immune to this syndrome, but this year they consistently fell short in the clutch.

A jittery U.S. team lost the Ryder Cup for the first time on its home soil, at Muirfield Village, to a confident European side that was tougher down the stretch. Consider the major championships: Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman were felled in a playoff by unassuming Larry Mize at the Masters; Watson was outplayed down the stretch by modest Scott Simpson at the U.S. Open; Azinger's streak as the hottest player in the world was stopped by journeyman Nick Faldo at the British Open; and Lanny Wadkins's thunder was muffled by Larry Nelson in sudden death at the PGA. If a millionaire pro ever goes on Saturday Night Live to be interviewed by the Church Lady, he should expect no mercy: "Well, aren't we just a leeetle bit satisfied with ourselves?...Could it be...Satan?"

Certainly the money at the Nabisco could be considered sinful. Pitting the year's top 30 players against each other, the inaugural Nabisco didn't appear to be quite as meaningful as it cracked itself up to be, partly because it was too new to seem that significant. It didn't help that Oak Hills, albeit a classic A.W. Tillinghast design, is too short (6,556 yards) and forgiving to be an appropriate season-ending test.

Still, the Nabisco Grand Prix program was an effective antidote for a problem that has recently plagued the Tour—richer-than-ever golfers simply not playing enough. To encourage players to compete more, PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman and Nabisco devised a plan that gave the top 25 finishers in every Tour event points. The top 30 cumulative point winners qualified for the final tournament, which offered more money than anyone could afford to pass up. Nearly everyone played more, making sponsors very happy.

Strange, 32, set the highest standard, winning three times and breaking the money-winning record for the second time in three years. Only his lack of a major title keeps him from being considered a dominant player. The best emerging talent was Azinger, 27, who also won three tournaments. The average 18-hole score went down again, a fifth of a stroke. "There isn't a damn thing wrong with our golf," Strange said.

And yet on too many important occasions players pegged for greatness were missing in action. The three who, based on their 1986 performances, seemed ready to dominate—Norman, Ballesteros and Bob Tway—all declined in '87. Tway never seriously contended for a tournament. Ballesteros threatened at the U.S. Open and PGA, but both he and Norman were profoundly affected by the Masters disappointment. Each won only once, Ballesteros the Suve Open in France and Norman the Australian Masters.

Norman may be the most telling study. He cashed in his chips from 1986 by signing endorsement contracts worth about $12 million. He insisted that his contractual obligations "had nothing to do with my poor play. I was making a lot of money before this. Basically I was trying too hard to top last year."

Beman thinks the competition on the Tour is better than ever before. "To win two or three tournaments in a year today is a greater accomplishment than winning five or six 15 or 20 years ago," he says. "It doesn't mean that because people don't win five or six tournaments they are lazy or no good. If you look at the practice tees of every golf course on tour, you will see more divots than you did 20 years ago."

Others say golf is in a cycle similar to one in the mid-1950s when the game was without a dominant player. Tom Kite, the only golfer to have won at least one tournament every year since 1981, thinks a true champion's desire to win is unaffected by the economic climate, but that a player with the proper outlook and talent is rare. "Guys like Snead and Palmer and Nicklaus keep their motivation," says Kite. "They always have and they always will."

Watson, 38, is the last player who earned his way into that galaxy. He was Player of the Year six times from 1977 to 1984. His slump dated back to his '84 British Open loss to Ballesteros. But this year he played with the same elemental spirit that had characterized his prime years. He makes a point of keeping the front of his visor free from endorsements, half joking that "it keeps the brain clear."

Watson is not ruling out a return to his former level. "If I come out next year and win five or six times, then I will be all the way back," he said. "People who say that's impossible to do now don't know what they're talking about."

None of Watson's future victories is likely to require as much inner conquest as Nabisco. He came to San Antonio after spending three weeks at his home in Mission Hills, Kans., where he had put in as much as three hours a day on his short game. "All of a sudden the putter started feeling good again," he said.

"I guess the money will make up for some of my losses in the stock market, but I honestly never thought about it," said Watson, who lifted his earnings for the year to a career-best $616,351. "The victory is so much more important. That's what I'm out here to do—win."

It's an attitude some players on the Tour can stand to be reminded of.

PHOTOPHIL HUBERWatson wings his visor after sealing a victory he prized even more than his fat check.