I’ve been lucky enough to be around the next American Ryder Cup captain, Tom Watson, a whole lot in my life. He has asked me to introduce him at various functions and to be his co-host at various events. I’ve caddied for him. I’ve interviewed him hundreds of times, of course, and I’ve had many long and sometimes intense conversations with him about life and politics and the belly putter and journalism and what excellence really means. I don’t say all this to brag (mostly).
I say all this because even after all that, I can’t say that I really know Tom Watson.
All I really know for sure — for absolute sure — is that the son of a gun wants to win more than anyone I’ve ever been around.
That’s a blurry and ineffable trait if you think about it. Competitiveness. You will hear people talk all the time about how competitive they are. They will usually try to prove this point by saying they cannot stand losing even at some thoroughly unimportant game — most often tiddlywinks.
“You know me, I want to win everything, whether it’s tiddlywinks or whatever,” former Cubs manager Dallas Green said.
“I don’t care if I’m playing you in golf, in tennis, in checkers, in tiddlywinks, I want to win,” tennis star James Blake said.
“I’d love to manage Arsenal — I hate losing at tiddlywinks, we need that mentality,” tweeted longtime German soccer player Dietmar Hamann.
“These boys hate losing at tiddlywinks,” said former English football star Graeme Murty to explain how hard it was on his team when they were going through a rough patch.
“I have to win at everything, even tiddlywinks,” said England tennis and club mogul David Lloyd.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re flipping a coin or playing tiddlywinks or football, I want to win,” said Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn.
And so on, there are thousands of these tiddlywinks quotes — tiddlywinks seems to be at the very heart of whatever it is that makes some people insanely ambitious and cutthroat. There are also versions of this competitive-speak where an athlete/coach talks about how they want to win so badly they never even let their child win at anything — not tic-tac-toe, not arm wrestling, not anything — even when their child is a toddler.
And finally there are those particularly zealous souls — I seem to remember Bill Russell, perhaps the most famously competitive athlete, saying this — who combine the two themes and say they would never, ever — not in a million years — let their child beat them at tiddlywinks.
All of this is well and good … but what kind of person really wouldn’t let their three-year-old child win at tiddlywinks? Would you want to be friends with that person? Somewhere along the competitiveness spectrum there is a line between healthy and unhealthy, sane and unstable, between a relatively sane person who really wants to win at tiddlywinks and a half-crazed lunatic willing to drop a piano on a competitor so he can get the last doughnut.
Watson gingerly walks that line. Watson actually has two defining qualities — two qualities that, on the surface, seem to clash. On the one hand, he wants to win more than I know. On the other hand, he is — in his realm — the most principled person I know. He’s a ferocious rules follower; so much so he has written more than one book about the rules of golf. In other words, he’s the most competitive person I know, and he’s the least likely to cheat or take shortcuts. It’s a unique combination. Watson is a unique person.
He displays this competitiveness in lots of ways — for instance, it’s fun to watch people interview him (sometimes more fun than actually interviewing him). Most of the time, Watson is a pleasant and friendly guy. He will answer any question you ask (unless you keep asking different versions of the same question). But he’s not much of a small-talk guy, and he will not meet you more than halfway. Let’s say, for example, he’s played a round at the Masters in the rain. The first exchange will inevitably go like this:
Reporter: So, it was a wet one out there today.
That’s all. There will be a few brief seconds of awkward silence — but Watson is done talking. The reporter is hoping that Watson will expand on the rain, how hard it was to play in those conditions, what the greens were like, how long the course played, what holes were especially tough and so on. But the reporter DID NOT ASK any of those questions. The reporter simply said it was wet out there. Watson confirmed.
Interviews will go on like this, a battle of wills. He will not just go along with storylines if he disagrees with the premise (and he disagrees with most premises). He will not anticipate the next question to make it easier on the interviewer. He will not direct traffic to a good story if he’s not asked directly about it. I don’t mean to make this sound like Watson is a bad interview … I find him to be a terrific interview, thoughtful, opinionated, well-spoken. But an interview is a competition. For Watson, everything is a competition.
It is this extreme competitiveness that made Tom Watson the best golfer of his day, one of the best golfers of all time. Oh, he was a great player on many levels — great striker of the ball, remarkable imagination around the greens and, in his day, the best putter north of Ben Crenshaw — but what made Watson a five-time British Open champion and the PGA Tour player of the year six times was his fierce unwillingness to give in. He might be the best bad-weather player who ever lived. He might be the best wind player who ever lived. He might be the best links player who ever lived.
Why? It’s because those things challenge the soul, they test your patience and your willpower and your sense of fairness. A bad bounce. A gust of wind at the wrong time. A sideways rain. These things will crush your will. How do you endure? At some point, the circumstances and conditions and bad luck become so overwhelming that you just laugh and throw your hands up in the air and wonder why the fates have it in for you. The question is: At what point do you throw your hands up? For Tom Watson, that point is … never. If he’s on pace for 84, he will fight like heck to shoot 83. If a perfectly struck shot hits a land mine and blows up, Watson will hit every ball fragment. I imagine he would never lose a game of chicken. Ever.
The wonderful caddy Bruce Edwards gave the best description of Watson’s competitiveness. He said that some players — you can probably think of a few — hit a bad shot into an impossible spot and say, “Why me?’ Tom hits a the same bad shot into the same impossible spot and he says, “Wait ’til you see what I do with this.” Yep. Along with Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods, Watson probably followed up more bad shots with brilliant ones than anyone ever.*
*When I suggested this to Watson, he begrudgingly agreed. Then I said, “What about Jack Nicklaus?” He said: “Jack was as good as anyone at putting his bad shots behind him. But Jack didn’t hit nearly as many bad shots as I did.”
Watson once told me something funny. You already know, few people have ever loved golf as much as Tom Watson. He loves the history, the rules, the intricacies. He loves designing golf courses and studying golf equipment and breaking down the swing into the tiniest morsels. But he cannot stand playing golf on a sunny day. The very idea of many people’s perfect day — beautiful course, windless morning, a few friends, a six pack, 18 holes of joy — strikes him as something of a nightmare.
You might think this is because golf is his business and so he cannot enjoy it the way others do, but that’s not exactly it. A sunny windless day — there’s no challenge. There’s no pressure. There’s nothing at stake. Even if there are bets going, it doesn’t matter, a few dollars are not enough to feed his competitive hunger. Give him a howling wind. Give him a big crowd. Give him crippling pressure. That’s what he needs. That’s what allows Watson to test himself. That’s what golf means to him. Joe Montana once said that he liked driving better on icy roads. Same thing.
And that’s why Watson never could quite deal with the reaction to his amazing second-place finish at the British Open in 2009 when he was almost 60 years old. He came to the final hole with a chance to win — he needed a par — but he hit his second shot too flush, and he kind of flubbed his first putt, and he missed the par putt. He lost in the playoff, and in Watson’s mind it was a pure failure, plain and simple, nothing more or less.
Of course, that’s not the way most people around the world felt. Most of us felt like it was heartbreaking to see him lose, sure, but it was an inspiration to see him come that close at age 59. It was almost the greatest sports story of the year and the greatest golf story of all time. For many, it was life-affirming beyond words. On his drive back to the hotel, Watson got a call from Nicklaus, who told him that Watson’s effort had so inspired him that he actually watched golf on television, something Jack never does. Countless people from all around the world wrote and called and emailed and tweeted their appreciation to Watson for what he accomplished. Tom said all of that softened the pain of losing.
But you know what? It really didn’t. He has admitted to me since that he will never get over losing that tournament, because he never gets over losing. Certainly he appreciates the support from people all around the world, and he’s glad that some of them took some measure of motivation from what he did. But he doesn’t really UNDERSTAND any of it. “I lost,” he said. That’s where the story ended for him. He won many. He lost that one. That’s Tom Watson.
All of which is to say: He’s an arresting and brilliant choice for Ryder Cup captain. The only choice, really, after this year’s final-day meltdown. He’s the first person since Nicklaus in 1983 and 1987 to repeat as captain (Watson was the captain of the U.S. Team in 1993, the last time the United States won the Ryder Cup on foreign soil). He also follows a series of pretty blasé choices — Davis Love, Corey Pavin, Paul Azinger, Tom Lehman, Hal Sutton, Curtis Strange. All these men were excellent golfers and strong competitors and perfectly fine choices if you are trying to honor someone’s career or if you want to make it comfortable for the players. Oh, those guys LOVED playing for Lehman and Love. They also lost both times.
And this is the point: If you want the Ryder Cup to be a bunch of friends playing a few rounds of golf for fun, sure, have at it. But if you are trying to WIN, yeah, you go get Tom Watson. True, captains don’t win or lose Ryder Cups. True, Watson does not know these guys nearly as well as a younger player like Love, who is still active on the tour. True, Watson is not warm and fuzzy like Love — he has never been shy about his issues with Tiger Woods, for instance.
But Watson will captain to win. Plain and simple. This is the man who in 1993 told his team during the Ryder Cup: “Remember, everything they invented, we perfected.” This is the man who said that while he believes that Woods played golf better than anyone who ever lived, he would have LOVED to be young in Woods’ era so he could try and crush him — that’s what it’s all about for Watson. This is the man who hit the ball into the rough on 17 at Pebble Beach, told his caddy Bruce, “I’m going to make it,” then made it to beat Nicklaus at the U.S. Open. There might not be much Watson can do to lead his team to victory. But you know Watson will do absolutely everything.
One last quick Watson story, one I’ve written before. Watson and I both sponsored teams in the Kansas City RBI program — Reviving Baseball in the Inner City — because we both love baseball and both want more kids to have the chance to play. It’s a pretty loose thing, obviously. It isn’t like they send you a stats packet after each game. They never really even tell you if your team won or lost. Such things don’t matter. Unless you’re Tom Watson.
“Hey, my team is playing your team tomorrow night and …” I told him.
“We’re going kick your …” he said instantaneously.
He didn’t smile. He didn’t smirk. He didn’t blink. He just glared at me, his eyes flaring. I remember thinking at that moment that, deep down, he was joking, but he showed no sign of it. And he never showed any sign of it. Not too long ago, I was interviewing Watson at an event, and I told that story, and looked for a smile from him. I got none. He glared at me again.
“I wasn’t joking,” he said. ‘We did kick your …”