They became friends two decades ago, when each man, in his own
way, ruled golf. Sandy Tatum was in his late 50s, a San
Francisco lawyer, a scratch golfer, the president of the United
States Golf Association, handsome and erudite and opinionated.
Tom Watson was in his late 20s, and when he drove the ball in
the fairway, nobody could beat him, not Jack Nicklaus, not Seve
Ballesteros, certainly not Tatum, not even with two shots a
side. In 1987, when the U.S. Open was last played at Olympic,
Tatum's old club, Watson finished second, a shot behind Scott
Simpson, and Tatum saw each of his friend's 278 strokes. Next
week the Open returns to Olympic, and Watson and Tatum do, too.
They will return as changed men. No, that's not quite correct.
As evolved men.
This is an article from the June 15, 1998 issue
Power just fades. Tatum turned the reigns over to another man,
then came somebody else, and now there have been 10 USGA
presidents since Tatum ran the show. His calls to Far Hills,
N.J., are returned, of course, but at golf's central
headquarters his most important and novel ideas are greeted with
polite murmurs and thin smiles. With Watson, on his playing
field, the story was much the same: First he started missing the
long ones, then the intermediate ones, finally, gallingly, the
short ones, and the door was open. Curtis Strange was the first
guy through it, and a bunch of others followed him. It was no
solace to Watson that none of his successors dominated the way
The end of the Watson reign came 11 years ago, at Olympic.
Watson missed a short putt on the 1st green in the Saturday
round, then another short one on the 1st on Sunday. Tatum
cringed, as any friend would. But Watson just stood there and
took it, a stoic, an honorary Scotsman. He has always been that
way when he has failed. You examine failure to learn from it, he
Now, miraculously, but not suddenly, everything has changed.
"The most extraordinary thing is that Watson is 48 years old and
properly is counted among the best players in the world," says
Tatum, who is 77. Tatum says this boyishly, exuberantly. When
Watson plays well, people congratulate Tatum as if he played the
shots himself. Watson has a golfing aura about him, Tatum says,
the way his first golf hero, Ben Hogan, did. In a way, Watson
allows Tatum to be 20 or 30 or 40 years old again.
Now Watson has done something Tatum did with partial success,
something mighty Hogan could not do at all. He has cured himself
of the most dreadful of golfing illnesses, the yips. Watson has
rediscovered his putting stroke after it had been AWOL for
nearly a decade. The secret, he says, is accelerating his stroke
through the ball. His putting is once more on a level with the
rest of his game, which is more precise than it has ever been,
although not as powerful. It's hard to believe, but true:
Watson's fans no longer have to wish and pray and turn away when
he stands over a four-footer.
Some people, of course, are still in denial about the
turnaround. Watson's closest friends have been the most
resistant, for they have the most at stake emotionally. Last
month, on the Sunday of Colonial, Tatum was at a wedding and
didn't record the final-round coverage, worried that the overt
act of taping might jinx Watson. He didn't need to worry. Watson
didn't hole any cross-country putts, but he missed nothing in
the gag zone either. After 18 tries at Colonial, he won for the
first time. There's nothing wobbly about Watson's putting stroke
anymore. "I still get nervous before I putt," he says, "but by
the time I'm standing over them, I feel confident."
Had Tatum taped the Sunday round, the outcome would have been
precisely the same. Yet he remains cautious. "Watson must
recognize that he will miss the occasional short one, but that
doesn't mean a total relapse," Tatum says. "What's critical is
to carry on after the miss. A former yipper is always in
recovery." Hearing, by relay, these words from Tatum, Watson
nods appreciatively. There are things, in golf and in life, that
a man of 77 knows that a man of 48 does not.
Watson is trying to make up for lost time. He figures his 10
years of lousy putting cost him half a dozen titles, maybe
double that. He thinks that if Olympic is playing firm and fast,
as it was 11 years ago, he can win there. (If the course,
courtesy of El Nino, is soft and soggy, he expects to struggle.
He says he no longer has the strength to play shots out of long,
wet rough.) In July the British Open returns to Royal Birkdale,
where Watson won his fifth and last Open, in 1983. One more
British Open victory and he matches Harry Vardon's record. In
August, at Sahalee Country Club in Redmond, Wash., Watson will
try to win the one major he now covets most, the PGA
Championship, which he has played in annually since 1973 without
a victory. He needs the PGA for a career professional grand
slam, which has been accomplished by only Hogan, Nicklaus, Gene
Sarazen and Gary Player. That's the gaping hole in Watson's
His private life is another matter. Last November he quit
drinking. In December, Linda Watson, Tom's wife of 25 years,
filed for divorce. Later that month his 22-year relationship
with Ram took a turn when his contract with the club
manufacturer expired. Watson is shopping for a new deal, with
Ram among his suitors. Over the past several years, he has
reconciled with his father, mending a relationship whose strains
date back to 1990. Now he is starting to think about the next
phase of his life, about what to do after he turns 50, which
happens in 15 months. Watson has always lived in fishbowls, the
PGA Tour, upper-crust Kansas City, Mo., and the fishbowl
population loves to talk. Meg, the Watsons' 18-year-old
daughter, will attend Duke in the fall, and not Stanford, her
father's alma mater. In the bowls this decision is being
interpreted--wrongly, absurdly--as an act of rebellion on Meg's
part. (After all, she's not going to her mother's alma mater,
Mills College, either.) People talk. Watson knows that. He just
doesn't understand why.
Watson is not, bless his heart, a modern. He realizes this is
the age of the public confessional, but he wants no part of it.
He discusses intimate things with the people he is closest to,
Tatum and Chuck Rubin, his brother-in-law (for now) and manager,
and not with you and me and millions of other strangers. Ask him
about his relationship with his father, Ray, and he says, "I
love my dad." That's it. The rest of it--the nature of his
relationships with his father, his son, his daughter, his wife,
even his caddie--is his business and not yours.
Tatum respects Watson's privacy, which is why their relationship
has endured and why its importance to both men has only
increased with the passage of time. Tatum views Watson as a
friend, but Watson says he and Tatum have "what you might call a
father-son relationship." (That's about as much psychobabble as
you're going to get from Watson. A note for the shrinks: Tatum
and Ray Watson know one another; they played golf together at
Stanford before Tom was born.) Tatum does not give Watson
unsolicited advice. As a result Watson seeks his counsel.
When Tatum does give advice to Watson, it almost always comes in
the form of a letter. "A conversation can have an element of
pressure--the need to respond instantly--that is not always
useful," says Tatum. Watson, not one to save letters, has kept
every one he has received from Tatum, on subjects ranging from
Watson's strained relationship with Player to Watson's
relationship with his wife. Some of the letters are jokes, meant
for distribution. (Earlier this year, Watson received a letter
from Tatum that began, "An unimpeachable source has told me that
on the practice tee at Bay Hill you indulged in a grossly public
disparagement of my golf swing. My informant identifies your
performance as 'hilarious.' If Rubin has not already done so, he
should advise you that public disparagement of a person's golf
swing is a common law tort.") Most of the letters are shared
On the subject of the Watsons' pending divorce, Tatum says he
finds the breakup wrenching, for he and his wife, Barbara, have
a great friendship with Linda Watson, too. The Tatums know
firsthand that Linda and Tom Watson had many good times and good
years together. And that's all Sandy Tatum will say. Tom leaves
any public discussion of the issue to Rubin, Linda's brother. "I
have a personal, legal and emotional responsibility to all the
parties, including the children, including my parents, and
they're very angry," Rubin says. "Tom was, literally and
figuratively, a member of our family. On the High Holidays, Tom
always went to synagogue with the family. It's been extremely
difficult, for all of us. Sandy has helped me get through this.
I commiserate with him. He commiserates with me. One day I'm his
rock. The next day, he's mine."
Tatum worries about what will happen to Linda Watson, who
declined to be interviewed for this story. "For virtually half
her life she has been Mrs. Tom Watson, wife of the professional
golfer," Tatum says. In fact Linda and Tom started dating in
high school, went to college near one another and married soon
after graduating. "She is smart, beautiful, energetic, fiery,
loyal. People will always be attracted to her. But she's going
to have to define herself in a new way."
Half of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, and viewed
that way it seems illogical that Watson's divorce is causing
such a stir in golf. In a way Watson is paying for his perceived
rectitude, for two famous moments of righteousness that have
defined his public image. One came in 1983, when he accused
Player of cheating in the Skins Game. The other came in 1990,
when he quit the Kansas City Country Club because a membership
applicant was rejected solely, it seemed to Watson, because he
was Jewish. (Watson is not Jewish, but his wife and children
are.) There are those two incidents, plus a quarter century of
playing the most public of games with unflinching honesty--this
is Watson's public legacy.
Of course, none of that has anything to do with the
compatibility of a husband and a wife in the darkened corridors
of their shared lives. As Tatum points out, it's not as if
Watson went around saying he was always perfect. What he was was
always right. That has been evident in the press tent, on the
course, on the practice green, where he would occasionally ask
fellow professionals for help, then dismiss their suggestions
with a curt, "That's wrong." At night, over dinner, on the
second or third or fourth glass of wine, he would become only
more sure of himself.
Few people suspected that Watson had a drinking problem. Tatum
was not one of them. Tatum, mostly for his own amusement and
record, has written about his golf experiences with Watson, and
the anecdotes, invariably charming, almost always involve some
consumption of Scotch or red wine or Irish whiskey. In one
writing Tatum describes Watson as a "moderate drinker." But not
a problem drinker. One day Tatum, a light drinker himself, got a
call from Rubin informing him that Watson had given up all
manner of drink. He just gave it up, cold turkey.
"I stopped drinking because while drinking I did some things
that I didn't like," Watson says. He doesn't elaborate, but he
realizes he's lucky. He has left no legacy of smashed cars and
smashed lives. Rubin says the drinking was not an issue in the
dissolution of the marriage. The sense one gets is that there
were a few boozy coat-and-tie nights when Watson was supposed to
stand at a podium and say smart things but instead slurred his
way through after-dinner remarks. A proud man was embarrassed,
He's still proud. "I stopped by myself," Watson says. "If I
hadn't been able to, I'd have gotten some help. My dad's given
me the AA literature, but I haven't read it." Reminded that the
American Medical Association classifies alcoholism as a disease,
Watson says, "They're wrong; I think they're wrong. Drinking is
a choice. It's a social issue, a peer-pressure issue." He pauses
and adds, "There may be a genetic component to it." Vintage
Watson, with a twist. By going public, Watson may improve some
lives, including his own. By giving up alcohol, he may improve
his golf game. "He's taken the problem head-on, typical of Tom,
and handled it decisively," says Tatum. "That's his character."
Now a nearly vintage Watson is back on the golf course. He's
tied for the lead through three rounds of the rain-interrupted
AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, which will be concluded on
the Monday after the PGA in mid-August. He has already made more
money this year than in any of his previous 26 seasons on tour.
He's likely to make the Presidents Cup team this year and
possibly the Ryder Cup team in '99. Tatum is awed by how, with
so much happening in Watson's life so fast, his golf has been so
spectacular. Or maybe that's why his golf is so spectacular?
There's no explaining it, except to say golf requires hands,
head and heart in equal measure. Watson's life is either highly
discombobulated or hugely simplified. Watson can make either
case. Tatum can, too.
Their best times together have been their simplest times, when
they could revel in one another's company and in their shared
love of the game. In 1989, at the height of Watson's slump,
Watson and Tatum were partners in the AT&T, as they
traditionally are. Playing at Pebble Beach in the third round,
Watson made a horrendous double bogey on the 17th hole, causing
him to miss the cut. It was a moment of significant despair for
Watson. Later that day, in the fading light of a dark afternoon,
with the fog in and the wind up and the temperature down, Watson
insisted that he and Tatum play nine holes at Cypress Point. The
two men had their picture taken on the 16th tee. The Pacific,
behind them, is a churning mess. Tatum looks sturdy, pleased.
Watson is carrying borrowed clubs and wearing borrowed rain
gear. His grin in the picture is not the forced one you see
often on TV. He looks almost maniacal with glee. The picture
hangs in Tatum's office, near another of the two that Watson has
signed: FOR MY KEEPER.
Tatum says, "Golf to me is a way of relating to nature and
relating to yourself and dealing with an endless challenge that
is totally engaging. When you find somebody else who feels that
way about golf, it's like discovering a soul mate, and that's
exactly what I have in Tom."
Watson says, "The game is important because it teaches you that
there are rules that you have to live by. I know that Sandy
feels that way, too. Golf shaped Sandy's personality
tremendously as a child, as it did mine. We share that. He leads
a golfing life."
Earlier this year, Watson and Tatum collaborated on a
coffee-table book called The 25 Greatest Achievements in Golf.
Two of the achievements, all of which were selected by a panel
of golf writers, belong to Watson: his victories at the 1977
British Open at Turnberry and at the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble
Beach. There's no place in the book for friendship as an
achievement. There are no blank pages in the book, either, to
record what might happen next.
he wants no part of it.
you have to live by," says Watson.