Reconnecting with Tom Watson

June 22, 2003

For many of us of a certain age, older than Tiger and younger than
Jack, Tom Watson represented golf for a decade and a half, from
the first days of disco to the last days of the persimmon driver.
It wasn't only the wins: the five British Opens, the two green
coats, the U.S. Open he stole from Nicklaus out of the beach
grass at Pebble in 1982. It was him. This gap-toothed Huck Finn
is a psychology major out of Stanford, Vin Scully told us again
and again. What did we really know about him? We were given only
glimpses and filled in the rest ourselves. He had a chance to win
a sixth British Open at St. Andrews in '84, misclubbed on the
Road Hole and lost, but he never made an excuse. He quit the
Kansas City Country Club on principle in 1990 because the club
refused to admit a Jewish businessman. He was a man of integrity.
He was a man.

For years the glimpses were so enticing. Near the end of his Duel
in the Sun against Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in '77, he turned
to the Golden Bear and said, "This is what it's all about, isn't
it." He said it, ever sure of himself, as a statement, not a
question. The night he won at Muirfield in '80, he and Ben
Crenshaw and their gorgeous first wives sneaked onto the course
and played shots in the twilight. Then there was that famous
dialogue between him and his caddie, Bruce Edwards, the preamble
before the holed pitch shot that won Watson his lone U.S. Open
title, in '82:

Edwards: "Come on now, get it close."

Watson: "I'm not going to get it close. I'm going to make it."

The truth is that in his heyday Watson, deeply self-reliant,
never needed much help from his caddies. Not from Alfie Fyles,
with whom he won his five British Opens and lost at St. Andrews.
Not from Leon McClatty when he won at Augusta. Not even from
Edwards, with whom he has won 36 times in a partnership that
began 30 years ago. Watson wanted punctuality and accurate
yardages and not much else. For several years in the early '90s
Edwards, who is 48, went to work for Greg Norman. Over the course
of that decade, many of us left Watson too--or I did, anyway.

The glimpses became unattractive. We learned that he didn't
handle his public drinking well, that his relationship with his
father was strained, that the man who stood up to the country
club bigots otherwise followed the crowd, falling into step with
the predictable Rush Limbaugh. His first wife, Linda, divorced
him, and he shed his old Ram clubs. When his putting stroke went
yippy, only the old faithful, Edwards among them, really cared.
When Watson played journeyman Don Pooley in an epic U.S. Senior
Open playoff last year, whom were you rooting for?

Then came last week, at the real U.S. Open, and all was forgotten
and forgiven. Over the course of a single day Watson made us
remember why we admired him so. On Thursday, playing on a USGA
exemption at age 53, he shot a 65. Nobody shot lower. For once,
here was a golfer playing for somebody other than himself.
Edwards was on the bag, even though he's already showing signs of
ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, as it's commonly known. For a day
Watson had the national sporting stage again, and he stood up,
hat in hand, and made a public pitch for ALS research money. The
emotion of the day was captured in the hug Watson and Edwards
shared on the 18th green and in a single sentence that Watson
blurted out later: "I don't care if I shoot 90 tomorrow." Ever a
realist, Watson knew what we did not: Fifty-three-year-old men
with unreliable putting strokes do not win U.S. Opens, but
anybody can show gratitude to an old friend.

The remaining three days of the championship belonged to Watson
and Edwards as they--they--shot rounds of 72, 75 and 72 to finish
28th. The old couple, owners of each other's secrets, received
standing ovations on green after green.

At the urging of his caddie Watson had put his old Ping putter in
his bag last week. After a practice round Edwards asked Watson
how the putter felt. "Like an old girlfriend," Watson said.

For a moment the years evaporated and Edwards and Watson were
young again and the only thing ahead of them was the promise of
tomorrow.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN SOMMERS II/REUTERS FINEST HOUR By showing his feelings for an old friend, Watson won a legion of new fans.

For years the glimpses of Watson were so enticing, but then they
became unattractive.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)