Tom Watson never says never, so he would never say so, but there
is every reason to believe that he'll never have a better
opportunity to win the PGA Championship than he will this week
at the Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville.
This is an article from the Aug. 12, 1996 issue
In recent years Watson would have been merely a sentimental
choice in the only major he has never won, but in the wake of
ending a nine-year victory drought in June at the Memorial, and
despite a shoulder injury that knocked him out of the British
Open, he must be considered among the favorites in 1996.
Everything, except for a temperamental putter, is right. His
game is more solid than ever, his confidence is high, and
Valhalla's modern design suits his big game.
Watson calls the PGA the ultimate goal in his career, the one
achievement he needs to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary
Player and Jack Nicklaus as only the fifth player in history to
win the four events that make up the modern Grand Slam. As the
years have gone by, the task has grown more difficult. To win
his first major since the 1983 British Open, Watson will have to
eliminate the chronic twitch that is fatal on greens cut to
championship speed. To expect him to do so at 46, with the
knowledge that winning would further elevate his status in
golf's pantheon, is perhaps too much to ask. But Julius Boros
became the oldest major champion by winning the PGA at 48, and
those who know Watson best believe three things--that he has
been liberated by his victory at the Memorial, that he is
striking the ball better than ever and that he still possesses
the special quality that produces historic feats such as his
brilliant wins over Nicklaus at Turnberry in the 1977 British
Open and at Pebble Beach in the 1982 U.S. Open.
"Never underestimate Tom Watson," says close friend Lee Trevino.
"He has what it takes inside to set a goal and achieve it."
Says Byron Nelson, who as Watson's mentor has worked with him
since 1976, "Tom is hitting the ball the best of his career, and
that's saying something."
Watson doesn't disagree with that enthusiastic assessment. "I'm
playing with ease," he says. "I feel good about my golf game."
The key, he believes, has been a change in his address position
made about three years ago, a leveling of his shoulders that has
minimized the overactive leg action that used to make Watson an
"I can honestly say that in my prime I went into tournaments
feeling really comfortable with my swing only four or five
times," says Watson. "It's different now. A light switch went on."
The irony, of course, is that Watson was a monster winner when
he was an uncomfortable swinger and has only won once since
becoming comfortable. The reason is his putting. Watson admits
his putter let him down at the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, where
he finished in a tie for 13th, six strokes behind Steve Jones.
Watson made only eight birdies and was shaken by four misses
inside of three feet.
"I was in position to win if I didn't screw up those four little
putts," says Watson. "But I know I can have a week when I
basically eliminate those misses, because that's what I did at
If he can win at Valhalla, Watson will probably be the last to
enter golf's most exclusive club for a long time. No one has won
all four legs of the modern Grand Slam in the same year, and
only Tommy Armour, Raymond Floyd, Walter Hagen, Byron Nelson,
Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Trevino and Watson have won three of
them over the course of their careers. Of those, Watson is the
only one with a realistic shot to win the fourth. Palmer played
in his final PGA, the major he is missing, in 1994, and Trevino
almost certainly played in his last Masters in 1991. The
53-year-old Floyd, who skipped this year's British Open, isn't
sure when he will play it again. Nelson and Snead are 84;
Armour and Hagen are dead.
As the quality of those who have fallen just short shows,
winning all four legs of the Grand Slam is not the only measure
of greatness. Bobby Jones, who won the original Slam in 1930 by
taking the U.S. Open, the U.S. Amateur, the British Open and the
British Amateur, was ineligible for the PGA. Hagen and Armour
played in the first few Masters, beginning in 1934, but were
past their primes.
Hagen witnessed playing partner Sarazen's double eagle at the
1935 Masters, which led to the Squire becoming the first player
to win all four modern Grand Slam events, though no one called
them that back then. It really wasn't until the mid-'50s, after
Hogan had won the British Open in his first and only attempt,
and after the Masters had gained acceptance as a premier event,
that the modern Slam took shape. Thereafter, Player completed
the cycle with his lone U.S. Open victory, in 1965, while
Nicklaus followed suit the next year with his first win at the
The way history has come to weigh majors, winning all four Grand
Slam events is a ticket to immortality, which is why those who
stopped a leg short can't help but sound wistful when asked to
reflect on the one that got away. Nelson has the fewest regrets.
He won the Masters, the U.S. Open and the PGA between 1937 and
1940, but not the British Open. The eminently good reason was
that Nelson played in it only twice--in 1937, when he parlayed a
trip to the Ryder Cup into his first appearance, and in 1955,
when his friend Eddie Lowery talked the long-retired Nelson into
making the tournament part of a vacation with their wives. On
that occasion, despite lacking touch on the greens, Nelson
In 1937 Nelson tied for fifth at Carnoustie and won $125, which
hardly made a dent in the $3,500 he figured the trip cost him,
combining ship fare with what he would have made at his club job
if he hadn't taken a monthlong leave of absence. "We had to
think money in those days, which is why so few American players
went overseas," says Nelson.
Still, Nelson, who by 1939 was the top player in the game, is
sure he would have played in the British Open more often had
the championship not been suspended from 1940 to 1945 because of
World War II. "Hitler kept Byron from winning the Grand Slam,"
jokes Nelson's wife, Peggy.
"I don't think I would have had a problem winning the British,"
he says. "I was winning right along. But when I played, it was
not something you had to win to fill out your record as a
champion. I have no regrets."
In contrast, Snead does. Of the dominant players of this
century--and there is a strong argument that he was the most
talented--only Snead failed to win the U.S. Open. In retrospect,
it all went wrong at his first Open, in 1937. Snead eagled the
par-5 72nd hole to finish with a score of 283, which was thought
to be good enough to win. But two hours later Ralph Guldahl
completed a strong final nine of 33 to shoot 281. The
25-year-old Snead felt as if a trapdoor had opened under him.
"I never went up to the U.S. Open again without thinking, Now
don't look the fool like you did in 1937," he wrote in his 1986
autobiography, Slammin' Sam. "And every time that way of
thinking beat me before I got to the first tee. If I had won
that 1937 title, I believe I'd have knocked over my other close
calls and likely a few more besides." Snead once figured out
that if he had shot 69 in the last round of every Open he
played, he would have won five and tied three others.
Considering how Snead was called the hex-haunted hillbilly in
regard to his Open record, that eight-foot eagle putt on 18 in
'37 and an 18-footer for a birdie to force a playoff with Lew
Worsham in 1947 are two of the greatest clutch putts in the
championship's history. Unfortunately, the 30-incher he missed
on the 18th hole of the playoff with Worsham to lose by a stroke
is considered the Open's most infamous gag.
Palmer's relationship with the PGA was a case of unrequited
love. From the very beginning of his pro career, the PGA had a
special importance to Palmer because his father was a club pro.
Yet, due to a clause that since 1968 has not been a part of the
PGA's bylaws, a player couldn't even enter the championship
until he had been a professional for five years. Palmer's first
PGA was in 1958, and by 1962, having won the other three majors,
he felt an urgent need to win that title.
Palmer first got close in 1964 at the Columbus (Ohio) Country
Club, where he shot 68-68-69-69 to become the first man to
break 70 in all four rounds of a major. But Bobby Nichols was
charmed that year. On the 69th hole, he made an 18-footer for
birdie, on the 70th a 15-footer to save par and on the 71st a
51-footer for birdie. He also birdied the par-5 18th to win by
three over Palmer and Nicklaus, who finished with a 64.
In 1968 at Pecan Valley in San Antonio, Palmer missed a 10-foot
birdie putt at the 72nd hole that could have forced a playoff
with the eventual winner, Julius Boros. Palmer's last good
opportunity in the PGA came two years later at Southern Hills in
Tulsa, when he threatened on the back nine only to see Dave
Stockton scramble to beat him by two strokes. "Dave broke my
back with his recoveries and his putting," recalls Palmer. "That
was the end of the line." He never again finished in the top 10
in the PGA.
In contrast to Palmer's fervent chase, the major Trevino didn't
win--the Masters--seemed to hold little significance for him.
After criticizing the Augusta National course in 1969, Trevino
refused to play for the next two years. Part of his explanation
was that his game was unsuited to Augusta's right-to-left
doglegs. Trevino returned in 1972 after Nicklaus motivated him
with the words, "You just don't know how good you are. You can
win anywhere." But during a practice round that year a policeman
tried to order Trevino's caddie, Neal Harvey, off the course for
not having the correct badge. Trevino again got hot and never
really cooled off. Although he played nearly every year
thereafter until his final appearance in 1991, Trevino never
finished better than 10th.
"The way I handled Augusta was the greatest mistake I've made in
my career," says Trevino. "It was a dumb move. But I was young
and stubborn and crazy. See, I was saying I couldn't play the
course, but I was really looking for a reason not to like the
place. I know I could have won that tournament, but I didn't
really give myself a chance."
Floyd is probably the most overlooked of those one step from
winning all the majors, partly because his career gained
momentum gradually, with his four major victories spaced at
least four years apart, and because Floyd has never been a
fixture in the major he lacks, the British Open. Although he
joined the Tour in 1963, Floyd didn't play in his first British
Open until 1969, when he finished 34th. He missed the cut the
following year and then didn't play for the next four. "At
first, I hated it," says Floyd. "Psychologically, I had that
Ugly American attitude. I was spoiled. I liked golf on our Tour."
But after Floyd won the Masters in 1976, he began to appreciate
the British Open. "I started to understand the importance of it
historically, how links golf was the origin of the game and what
winning could mean to my career," he says. "Then I loved it."
Floyd responded by finishing fourth in 1976, eighth in 1977 and
tied for second at St. Andrews in 1978. He also tied for third
in 1981 but has not placed in the top 10 since. Now playing the
Senior tour full time, Floyd is weighing his participation in
future British Opens. "Of course, it's a regret not to have
won," he says. "I would love to be in the same category as those
other four players."
Watson is too engaged in the present to have regrets, although
he would have plenty of material if he is ever so inclined. At
the 1978 PGA at Oakmont, he led by six strokes early in the
final round and by four with nine holes to go. After losing all
of his lead, Watson got himself into a sudden-death playoff with
a courageous birdie at the 71st, but John Mahaffey closed out
Watson and Jerry Pate by making a long birdie putt on the second
extra hole. "Mahaffey did to me what I was doing to a lot of
people in those days," says Watson, "so I'm not haunted by that
Watson has never been one to look back. Then again, according to
Norse mythology, Valhalla is the resting place where warriors
can bask in past glories. If Watson can win there this week,
he'll be entitled.