You could lose a painting at the Kansas City Country Club. The
main hall of the clubhouse passes room after room filled with
portraits in gilded frames--characters in pantaloons and ruffled
collars who probably never lipped out a putt. But a certain
portrait was not visible last week, and nobody at the club
seemed to know anything about it. A painting of a champion
golfer--late 20th century. A sometime member, in fact. Used to
hang in the Tap Room.
"It might be up in the attic somewhere," said a young staff
member, frowning with concentration.
"I haven't been here that long," said another with an apologetic
Understandable. The portrait came down five years ago amid
controversy. Touchy subject, really; the member resigned, the
national press got its nose across the threshold, voices were
July 16, 1995
History. By now, you thought, the portrait would be restored to
its position of prominence. After all, the member was back in
the fold, officially, as of June 27.
"Check in the golf building," suggested a young man in coat and
tie. "I'm sure it's not in the clubhouse."
No matter, you assured him. You only wanted to see if the
portrait was still a reasonable likeness.
Tom Watson was never a liberal. He may have looked like a
liberal when he joined the PGA Tour in 1971, fresh from the
glass-strewn and tear-gas-polluted quadrangles of Stanford. But
a mustache and longish hair were not particularly bold
statements in those times, and it was not unusual to see young
men with longer hair than Watson's boarding the buses that left
San Jose every week for the Oakland Induction Center. Even at
Silverado Country Club, an hour up the road from the notorious
University of California at Berkeley, facial hair and wind wings
on a golfer hardly warranted a second look.
Lanny Wadkins, who would one day succeed Watson as captain of
the U.S. Ryder Cup team, has a clear memory of his friend's pro
debut, at Silverado, and it's not the long-since-discarded
mustache that stands out, nor Watson's views on world issues.
It's the fact that Watson had gotten his playing card at the PGA
Tour Qualifying School just the weekend before in Florida, had
caught a plane for San Francisco on Sunday, had qualified to
play at Silverado on Monday and had opened his pro career on
Thursday and Friday with consecutive 68s. "Everybody noticed
that," Wadkins says, speaking for his Tour peers. "Tom busted
his butt to get there."
The Tom Watson who appeared that week at Silverado was a typical
young golf professional, in the sense that ambition and resolve
circumscribed his outlook. It's his own view that he entered a
tunnel in 1971 and emerged sometime in the '80s, blinking and
looking around in wonder at a world larger than the one he had
come to dominate. He probably overstates his detachment--Watson
is an avid newspaper reader and a man with strong opinions--but
until his commitment to tournament golf waned, he struck
observers as a gap-toothed huckleberry, the sort of
Midwesterner you pictured, as golf historian Herbert Warren Wind
put it, "sucking on a stem of grass as he heads for the fishing
hole with a pole over his shoulder."
Universally admired for his sportsmanship and good manners,
Watson steered around controversy with one hand on the wheel and
one on the roof. He won five British Open championships between
1975 and '83 without publicly weighing in on Thatcherism. He put
on the green jacket of the Masters champion in '77 and '81, and
if he wanted to chide the host club for its restrictive
membership policies, he held his tongue. He won the '82 U.S.
Open on California's Monterey Peninsula and somehow accepted his
trophy without declaiming on the fate of the humpback whale.
Civility is a fragile flower. These days, Los Angeles Times
columnist Larry Stewart calls Watson a "backstabber," while
Jonathan Rand of the hometown Kansas City Star settles for
"stuffed shirt." Golf writers, in his corner for two decades,
edge away in print. A tabloid in England, where Watson was a
hero until he declined to autograph a dinner menu for an
opponent at a 1993 Ryder Cup banquet, ran the screaming banner,
YOU'RE A DISGRACE, WATSON. And the mail! In '90, when he
captured headlines by resigning from the Kansas City Country
Club over its blackballing of a prospective Jewish member, the
mail to Watson's office in Westwood, Kans., was heavy and, in
the words of his business manager, "99 percent positive." Now,
for writing a pair of confidential notes that may have cost a
cheeky television commentator a week's work, Watson receives
mail that is, at best, mixed--much of it condemning him as
humorless and meddlesome.
The backlash stings. "It bothers me," Watson admits. "I don't
have the thick skin of a politician."
The nature of Watson's hide may be pertinent. He likes to quote
Winston Churchill, who said, "If you are not a liberal when you
are 18, you have no heart; if you are not a conservative when
you are 38, you have no brain." So some now ask: What has become
of Watson's heart? His staunch advocacy of tradition and
traditional values, once so praiseworthy, now strikes many as
merely trendy. ("I'll be glad when he's over his Rush Limbaugh
phase," says an acquaintance jokingly.) Oddest of all, there is
a growing sense of Watson as a man estranged from his own
generation. At 45, with two children at home and with his
athleticism and vigor intact, he seems, at times, to be the
The public has been aware of this grimmer, more austere Watson
for less than two years. First there was Watson's harsh handling
of the autograph-seeking Scottish golfer Sam Torrance at the
Ryder Cup ("Menu-gate") 22 months ago. Next came Watson's
criticism of comedian Bill Murray for what Watson and then-PGA
Tour commissioner Deane Beman considered inappropriate antics
during the 1993 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Finally, and
most tellingly, there was the "Gary McCord flap"--named for the
part-time Tour player and mustachioed funnyman who lost his
Masters TV gig this year after Watson, offended by on-air quips
during the '94 tournament about "bikini wax" and "body bags,"
sent a handwritten demand to CBS director and producer Frank
Chirkinian to "get rid of him, now."
But those who know Watson intimately insist he's not ready for
the wing chair by the window. "He's not stoic, he's not
humorless," says Bruce Edwards, Watson's caddie for the better
part of 20 years. "But he's a shy guy who wants to let his clubs
do the talking."
Edwards has been at Watson's side on many a Sunday, victory
within reach; he has seen him try to hit the perfect shot over
waste and fen. One time--Edwards thinks it was on the 18th hole
at Pebble Beach during a Bing Crosby Pro-Am--Watson hooked a
critical approach shot into the Pacific. And while another
golfer might have dropped his club and turned away in disgust,
Watson, his mouth a tight line, watched, without blinking or
moving, the whole flight from impact to splashdown.
"Why didn't you react?" Edwards asked afterward.
Watson's reply: "Because that's my punishment."
These days, when he sees his boss taking punishment, Edwards
rises to his defense. "Tom is the big brother I never had," he
says. "He's shown me how to win--not just in golf but in life."
Asked about McCord, Edwards says, "It's not the steak anymore,
it's the sizzle. And Gary McCord is the sizzle. I remember
walking onto the 18th green [at Doral] one time and hearing the
sound of a kazoo coming from the TV tower. Tom said, 'That's
just McCord, trying to be funny.'" Edwards shakes his head.
"It's become a carnival out here, a circus. You look at the way
society's going, where there's no respect for anything."
Equally distressed by the McCord backlash is another longtime
Watson friend, former U.S. Golf Association president Sandy
Tatum. "Tom is anything but stuffy," Tatum says. "He can be
scatological, he can be epithetical. Tom, unfortunately, may be
out of step with the taste of the American public. But that
certainly doesn't mean Tom is wrong."
Tatum, who has played as Watson's amateur partner in the Pebble
Beach Pro-Am since the mid-1970s, got a preview of the McCord
affair when Watson denounced Murray for antics with the gallery
in 1993 that included Murray's waltzing of an elderly woman into
a bunker without her consent. Many Tour players defended Murray,
but neither Watson nor Tatum bought into the performer's reprise
of his Caddyshack role. "When Murray picks up a woman and throws
her into a bunker, I think that's way across the line," says
Tatum. "And Tom's the kind of person who would think so. And say
Tatum sees a clear distinction between public decorum and
private fun. He recalls the time 12 years ago when he, Watson
and golf architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. were designing the
Golf Links at Spanish Bay, just up the peninsula from Pebble
Beach. After a day's work the three, joined by cartoonist Hank
Ketchum, shared a late dinner at Pebble Beach's Club 19. "We had
a delightful dinner," Tatum says, "with copious quantities of
some very good wine. And toward the end of the meal, Tom
disappeared for a bit, then returned with a little grin on his
face. It's 11 o'clock, and he's got a wedge and three golf
balls. 'Come on,' he says. 'Let's go play The Shot.'
"This is February following the June that he'd won the U.S. Open
by chipping in at the 17th to beat Jack Nicklaus"--known ever
since, in Watson's circle, as The Shot.
"So out we go to the 17th green. Pitch dark, there's no moon. We
have a hell of a time trying to decide where The Shot was played
from. Everybody's got an opinion, and Tom's doesn't matter a
whit; nobody's interested in what Tom's got to say. But we
finally get it all sorted out, and we spend almost half an hour
playing The Shot. And it was absolutely hilarious. I've got to
tell you, Tom would not have won the Open that night.
"So there's not an iota of stuffiness," adds Tatum. "But a round
of competitive golf is a serious obligation, and Tom thinks of
it that way."
Indeed, Watson is rarely seen wisecracking, a la Fuzzy Zoeller,
or flinging rubber snakes in the manner of his friend, Lee
Trevino. Watson's tournament demeanor is so focused, so dour,
that one understands why the Scots have practically granted him
honorary citizenship. "I always felt as if he played with
blinders on," says Nicklaus, who served as Watson's foil in four
of the greatest duels in golf history--Turnberry 1977, Augusta
'77 and '81 and Pebble Beach '82. "Tom reminds me of Ben Hogan
in that respect," says Wadkins. "I played a lot with Ben Hogan,
and he'd say, 'I don't like to play jolly golf.' I don't think
Tom likes to play jolly golf, either."
Friends say the two Watsons--the midnight prankster and the
gimlet-eyed competitor--have coexisted since he was a teenager in
the early 1960s and a small group of grownup golfers let him
into their Saturday-afternoon game at the Kansas City Country
Club. At 14, Watson was the Kansas City Match Play champion; his
father, Ray, was an accomplished player as well, having advanced
to the fourth round in the '50 U.S. Amateur. So the tone of
those Saturday outings was at once collegial and competitive.
"I learned how to needle and how to take the needle, how to
laugh and have fun," Watson says. "But all the people who played
golf with my dad were serious golfers--serious meaning they loved
the game. Every time they hit a golf shot they were there for
one purpose only, and that was to hit it the best they could."
To this day Watson counts as close friends an extraordinary
number of men who, like Tatum and legendary golfer Byron Nelson,
are 10, 20, even 30 years older than he. At the same time Watson
is close to only a handful of active Tour pros (Wadkins, Ben
Crenshaw and Tom Kite come to mind). His wife, Linda, recalls
attending a birthday party in New Orleans in the 1970s for
former U.S. Open champion Ken Venturi. "We were, like, 25 years
old, and everybody in the room was 40 or above," she says. "At
dinner, Bob Rosburg said, 'Tom, how'd you get here?' And Tom
said, 'In my Chrysler.'"
When asked about these friendships, Watson says kiddingly that
"old people are better storytellers." But he plainly values the
insights and judgment that accompany age. His own judgment,
although fallible, benefits from a sense of obligation and
discipline that was drummed into him by his father. Throw in the
fact that he has lived his life within the leafy,
Republican-dominated neighborhoods described by novelist Evan
Connell in Mrs. Bridge, and Watson's conservatism seems
It was not. Watson's older brother, Ridge, general manager of a
winery in Carmel Valley, Calif., is a former Peace Corps
volunteer with a Thai wife and a view of the world that he
describes as more "anarchic" than Tom's. His younger brother,
John Marshall, is a New York interior designer and former actor
who gleefully baits his brother on visits home. "The first thing
we do at the airport is get in Tom's four-wheel-drive and
argue," says John. "Which appalls the rest of the family, but
it's fun." Even Linda, who was Tom's childhood sweetheart, rolls
her eyes over the ideological gap in her marriage. "Yes, he does
listen to Rush Limbaugh," she says playfully. "There's a big
group of players who do, and I laugh at them all."
Ironically, as captain of America's most recent Ryder Cup team,
Watson had to stamp out an embarrassing Ditto-head Rebellion,
which threatened to inject Limbaugh's views into the biannual
match with the professional golfers of Europe. On Sept. 20,
1993, Watson visited the White House with 11 other wealthy
Republican golfers, who tugged at their ties and squirmed during
a prematch send-off hosted by President Clinton, a golfing
Democrat. Several players had threatened to boycott the ceremony
because they found the higher marginal tax rate onerous.
Furthermore, Payne Stewart had blurted to the press that Paul
Azinger, son of a Vietnam veteran, didn't want "to shake the
hand of a draft dodger."
The President ignored the widely quoted insults and warmly
greeted the team in the Rose Garden, shaking hands down the
line. Watson then gripped a golf club and said, "You know, Mr.
President, the golf grip is a lot like politics. If you hold the
club too far to the right, you're going to get in trouble on the
left. If you hold it too far to the left, you're going to have
trouble from the right. But if you hold it in the middle ..."
Clinton, amid laughter, finished the thought: "... you'll get it
Watching Bill Clinton and Tom Watson stand shoulder to shoulder
while camera flashes popped, one could only wonder what common
ground they, as prominent baby boomers, might have found. For
starters, they might have agreed that theirs was a generation
forced to make personal decisions with divisive, polarizing
consequences. Clinton's famous letter from Oxford, voicing his
loathing for the way American military might was being applied
in Vietnam, candidly weighed the cost to his political future if
he followed his conscience. Two decades later Watson would
struggle just as mightily with a different choice--whether to
sanction, by his silence, acts of bigotry in his own backyard.
Hindsight tells us that the politician acted more forthrightly
than the golfer, but hindsight rarely takes in all the factors
influencing a life-defining decision.
In that regard, it's interesting to hear Watson reflect on his
college years. It has been reported, inaccurately, that he
marched against the Vietnam War. And he has long been teased for
casting his first presidential ballot for George McGovern, a
Vietnam dove. ("You're an idiot," Ray Watson told his son.) Less
well-known is the general discomfort Watson felt at Stanford,
where the verities of Kansas City's sheltered neighborhoods
seemed under constant attack. "I was somewhat of a fish out of
water," he says, "and yeah, I was unhappy at times."
Watson is remembered at Stanford as a somewhat solitary figure.
A spring and summer golfer at home, he had to be prodded by golf
coach Bud Finger to qualify for the team during his first autumn
at Stanford. And although he was the Cardinal's No. 1 player for
three years, he won only the Stanford Invitational and the
Fresno State Classic.
Watson's only volunteered memories of this period involve his
predawn drives down the coast to the Pebble Beach Golf Links,
where the starter let him play free as a dew sweeper. On these
spiritual excursions, Watson would fantasize he needed pars on
the last three holes to win the U.S. Open--against Nicklaus, no
"In many respects Stanford was disappointing to me," Watson
says. His name is attached to an annual benefit tournament for
the Stanford golf team, but he has not attended for several
years. His college teammates say that when they approach Watson
at tournaments, he is invariably gracious but distant. And they
are puzzled by the grumpiness of his recent pronouncements. "I
feel as if Tom's really missing something, not getting together
with old friends to reminisce," says Clem Richardson, who roomed
with Watson on college golf trips. "But he seems restricted,
confined. I don't know ... maybe we represent something that
he'd sooner forget."
Taking it as far as it will go, one might argue that Watson,
uncomfortable with the deep antagonisms of his time, resigned
from his generation and adopted the values and viewpoints of
his father's peers, the World War II and Korean War generations.
"Where is common sense?" he says. "We're trying to teach this
younger generation the right values, but we see institutions
breaking those values down. I'm not talking in a religious
sense, but hey, it's O.K. to teach the Golden Rule in schools.
It's not a religious rule, it's a human rule."
Watson always seeks the middle ground. He likes Rush Limbaugh,
but he also listens to Cokie Roberts and National Public Radio.
He disarms critics with contrarian positions (he supports the
legalization of recreational drugs) and unexpected opinions ("I
think Clinton's doing a heck of a job as a caretaker
President"). He reads several newspapers a day, consumes letters
to the editor like candy and parks the television on CNN or
C-SPAN. Tell Watson you just returned from a Mexican vacation,
and he'll ask what you think of the latest developments in the
"I think he's a person with a highly developed critical nature,"
says Jones, the golf course designer. "And that can occasionally
be misinterpreted, when something isn't diplomatically stated."
The middle ground is where Watson lives. His family's home of 17
years-an unspectacular two--level with a swimming pool in the
backyard and neighbors close by--is in the middle of a city that
thinks of itself as "the heart of America" and serves as a test
market for companies pursuing the "average consumer." His
just-completed country house, 25 miles away in rural Kansas,
looks out on a fishing hole and is served by gravel roads. Asked
why he has never followed the example of most Tour pros and
moved to a warm-winter climate, he looks puzzled and says,
"Friends. Family. Both sets of parents live here. My high school
friends still live here. What would I want to move away from
Reminded that people do make such moves, he shakes his head and
laughs. "They're fools. I think they're foolish."
The problem with criticizing Watson is that he knows himself
better than you know him. In the late '70s, when he was winning
four or five tournaments a year, Watson heard ad nauseam that he
fussed too much with his swing, that he made golf harder than it
had to be. He countered that his swing was not sound--as
evidenced by the number of times he had to play around trees and
from behind cart paths. Almost two decades later, every round he
plays is vindication, because from tee to green he is a better
ball striker than he was in his prime.
The problem with Watson criticizing Watson is that he shows no
mercy. Faced with the erosion of his putting skills over the
last decade, Watson has pursued his lost stroke with a passion
bordering on delirium. He is convinced his misses derive from a
faulty setup or swing-path malignancy, so he shies away from
gimmicks like the long putter or the cross-handed grip.
Mark McCormack, founder and CEO of the International Management
Group, recalls the same thing happening to his client Arnold
Palmer. "Arnold putted cross-handed on the back nine at
Turnberry during the 1977 British Open, and he shot a 29," says
McCormack. "The reason he wouldn't stay with it was pride. He
thought he was strong mentally and shouldn't let putting conquer
him. I think Tom's the same way."
Watson, hearing of McCormack's view, shows no anger. "I am
hardheaded," he concedes. "I'm stubborn in the sense that I
think I can make it work. I will make it work. But it's not fair
to say that I won't use the long putter someday, or putt
cross-handed or sidesaddle. But my problem is simply making a
good, consistent stroke under pressure."
Even Hogan couldn't win when the three-footers started looking
like 30-footers. Watson's last Tour victory was the 1987 Nabisco
Championships of Golf, and although he has threatened to win
many times since--including serious runs at all four major
titles-his putter, particularly on Sundays, has betrayed him.
The short putts that rim out make the galleries gasp, but it's
the long putts that don't reach the hole that differentiate
Watson at 45 from Watson at 30. "I know if he could be as
aggressive as he used to be, the fear would leave him," says
Edwards, his caddie.
But Watson can't be, and the fear probably will never leave him.
He had no fear when he made his career choice. Midway through
his senior year at Stanford, in December 1971, he telephoned
Linda and blurted that he wanted to try tournament golf--a
prospect so unwelcome to her that she rejected his proposal of
marriage after graduation. ("I had eight years invested in the
relationship, but I did not want to be a professional golfer's
wife," she says. "I didn't want my husband to be a stranger to
my children.") When she did consent, a year and a half later, it
was with the understanding that Watson would play the Tour for
only five years. Neither she, nor anyone else, could anticipate
that he would win 32 Tour events and eight major championships
in 14 years.
Watson himself sometimes comes up short in the anticipation
department. Having been spared the hard choices over Vietnam and
the draft, he married a Jewish woman; he embraced in-laws who
are Jewish and began his married life under their roof in Kansas
City; and he hired his Jewish brother-in-law, lawyer Charles
Rubin, as his business manager.
These developments had certain members of the Kansas City
Country Club screaming in their sleep. Founded in 1896, the
mansion-bordered private club had long offered its socially
prominent members sanctuary from unwanted associations. As the
son of a member, however, and with his golf exploits bringing
distinction to the club, Watson's domestic arrangements were
tolerated. He was granted junior membership soon after
graduating from college. Later, in the wake of his major
championship run, proud club members hung a large painting of
Watson in the club's Tap Room.
Since Watson's college major was psychology, one can assume he
understood the extraordinary position his club membership put
him in. He seemed to fumble for rationalizations as his two
children reached school age. As if to quiet voices in his own
mind, he started an annual junior golf clinic in Kansas City's
Swope Park, giving away golf clubs and bringing smiles to
children of diverse backgrounds. More significant, in 1980, with
Charles Rubin's help, Watson launched an annual one-day golf
exhibition for Children's Mercy Hospital of Kansas City--an event
that has brought the world's best golfers to the heartland and
raised more than $6 million for society's most vulnerable.
Watson's visits to Children's Mercy, hospital insiders say, are
notable for his involvement with the children and his avoidance
But when, in 1990, progressive elements at the Kansas City
Country Club put up H&R Block founder and chairman Henry Bloch
for membership, Watson ran out of wriggle room. Upon learning
that his club's secret, five-man membership committee had
blackballed Bloch, who is Jewish, Watson wrote his letter of
resignation, ending two decades of accommodation.
Today, Watson will discuss his resignation only in the broadest
terms, his voice dropping almost to a whisper. "It was a very
personal decision," he says. "I just didn't feel my family was
welcome. It was time to say, 'Hey, let's be fair to people.
Let's not judge people on the basis of race or faith.'"
Watson's reluctance to say more is explained by the effect the
resignation had on his parents--particularly his father, a Kansas
City insurance broker. The elder Watson, who still wears a
1950s-style crew cut at age 76, was baffled and enraged by his
son's action. The two were not on speaking terms for months, and
Tom had to turn to the Rubins for emotional support. Tom also
got the cold shoulder from most of his father's golfing pals,
including those who had welcomed him to their Saturday-afternoon
games in the '60s.
The Kansas City C.C. dispute drew attention to Watson's family
situation, which was troubled even before the Bloch nomination.
Ray Watson is a recovering alcoholic who quit drinking some
years ago, but his behavior in galleries reportedly became so
disruptive that his son insisted he no longer attend
tournaments. This was a blow to the proud father who had already
distanced himself from the independent lifestyles of his other
Ray and Tom have since reconciled. Last August, Ray traveled to
Tulsa to watch his son play in the PGA Championship at Southern
Hills Country Club. In January, Tom and Linda met his parents in
Hawaii for a 50th wedding anniversary celebration, with
grandchildren Meg, 15, and Michael, 12, filling out the
entourage. Tom and Ray played golf as of old--reliving, no doubt,
the time when during a visit to their summer home in Wallon
Lake, Mich., a 12-year-old Tom played his father in the club
championship at Wallon Lake Country Club and lost on the 20th
hole. "We had a great time," says Ray, "except I can't play a
Ridge Watson says the hometown rumor mill exaggerated his
family's rift. "I think Dad was probably not wildly pleased [by
Tom's resignation], but it certainly didn't change the way we
behaved at family gatherings." But another close observer
describes the months following the Bloch episode as "horrible, a
nightmare." Neither the Watsons nor the Rubins will discuss the
matter, seeing no gain in public confession.
Meanwhile, changes in the club's membership policies--Bloch and
other minority members were ultimately admitted--opened the door
for Watson to return. When he did so, it was without fanfare.
"We think it's time for healing," he says. Previously, he had
discounted the possibility of rejoining, saying, "It would
revive the publicity."
And publicity is something he has had more than enough of.
Watson seems only to have to open his mouth or uncap his pen,
and controversy follows. "It's getting old," Watson says. "Linda
says, 'Keep your mouth shut. You don't open your mouth, your
feet can never get in it.'"
So yes, Watson continues to take his punishment. If at times he
seems to be frozen in his follow-through, it's because he must
watch life's every shot find fairway or hazard, depending on
the judgment that he has displayed.
"I don't make excuses," Watson says. "I just think society is so
excuse-oriented. 'It's not my fault. It's not my fault!'"
He shakes his head. "You make excuses, you're not fooling
anybody. That's what I learned playing with my dad," he says.
"If I hit a shot that ended up close to the hole and didn't hit
it solid, Dad would say, 'You hit it off the toe' or 'You hit it
fat.' There was no getting away with excuses, so I never made any.
"That's what I love about the game of golf. It's yours. It's
yours." A thin smile visits Watson's face, as some imagined shot
clears all obstacles and rolls toward the flagstick.
"It's nobody else's," he says. "It's yours."