Tom Watson is one of the greatest golfers who ever lived. That’s a given. He won eight major championships — only five legendary golfers (Nicklaus, Woods, Hagen, Hogan, Player) have won more. He won 39 PGA events, which ties him with a couple of guys named Sarazen and Mickelson for 10th. He beat Nicklaus head-to-head, three times — at Augusta, at Turnberry, at Pebble Beach — in three of the most famous duels in the history of golf. Sunday, at age 61, he won the Senior PGA Championship in Louisville. That was his sixth major title on the Senior Tour (or “Champions Tour” as they beg people to call it) — only Nicklaus and Hale Irwin have won more. I’m not saying anything here that you don’t know. Tom Watson is certainly and unquestionably one of the greatest golfers who ever lived.
And yet … I think Watson’s career is singular because unlike any of the other great golfers, Watson’s life is really divided in two. There was the young and wild Watson who hit the ball all over the place and won with one of the great short games in golf history. And there is the older Watson, whose ball-striking is so magnificent that men half his age salivate but who has been held back by 5-foot putts that stubbornly go their own way.
If the game of the old and young Watson had ever met, they would not recognize each other.
If the old Watson and the young Watson had ever shared a season, they might have won the Grand Slam.
They did not. Watson won the last of six PGA Tour Player of the Year awards in 1984. He found what he calls “The Secret” in 1994. In the nine years between, he suffered. The young Watson was stormy and miraculous — even HE used the phrase “Watson Par” to describe his hit-into-the-trees, hack-it-somewhere-near-the-green, somehow-get-it-to-10-feet, drain-the-putt style. He would say it with a hint of mischief in his voice — “There you go, another Watson par” — but he did it too often for anyone to think of it as luck. In those days, Watson was the boldest putter in the world. And this was because he was fearless. He knew if he hit it 4- or 6-feet by, he would make the comeback. He KNEW it.
When he stopped making those 4- or 6-footers, well, suddenly the well of Watson Pars dried up. Those suddenly turned into Watson Bogeys. He had a two-year spell when he didn’t win a single tournament. And then, after he won the Nabisco in 1987, he did not win for the next eight years. You have to understand that for Tom Watson, winning is the reason to play golf. He is driven by competition, by proving himself, by being on top the leaderboard and then bringing the championship home. “I don’t like golf on sunny days,” he has told me many times — the game of golf is not an escape for him like it is for millions of Americans. It is not relaxing. It is not social. It is about being the best, and when he wasn’t winning the game was misery.
Then in 1994, suddenly, absurdly, he found The Secret. You can read his book The Timeless Swing if you want details, and if you are a golfer I recommend it highly. The secret changed his game entirely. And, like that, his swing was crisp and refined. He was hitting the ball exactly where he wanted to hit it. He was hearing that sound, the sound of purity, just about every single time he swung the club. The other golfers marveled — he could do anything with the ball. Suddenly (and really for the first time) people started talking about Watson’s ball-striking. Watson won Nicklaus’ tournament, the Memorial, when he was 46 years old. He won at Colonial when he was 48, and came close to winning at Pebble Beach that same year.
The old Watson missed a lot of putts. A … lot … of … putts. People sent him tips and aids and putters — at one point the walls in his office in Kansas were lined with putters people sent. If he could have putted once he started hitting the ball pure — he really could have been something. Then again, if he could have hit the ball pure back when he was making every putt — he really could have been something.
And then again … he really WAS something anyway.
Like I say, I don’t think there’s another career quite like it. Even Watson has said, with only a touch of wistfulness, “I sure wish I could have hit the ball then like I do now” and “I sure wish I could putt now like did then.” But, more than wistfulness, he feels joy because he’s had two distinct lives in golf. “Golf defines me,” he says.
It was so much fun to watch Watson win again on Sunday. Everyone who likes golf even a little bit will remember two years ago, at Turnberry, when a 59-year-old Tom Watson was one putt away from winning the British Open. He missed that putt, of course — or as Nicklaus famously said: “You hit that putt the way all the rest of us would have hit it.” I think if he had won the British Open it would have been the biggest golf story ever. I think it would have been one of the biggest sports stories ever. I think he probably would have won SI’s Sportsman of the Year. As it was, the story was amazing. I mean, we all still remember Jack Nicklaus summoning his youth and winning the Masters in 1986. Watson was THIRTEEN YEARS OLDER than Nicklaus when he almost won the British Open. Finishing second was inspiring.
Only Watson did not see it that way. He could not see it that way — that just isn’t the way his mind works. He plays to win. And he did not win. And that was the story in his mind. Yes, he was touched by the many letters he received. He was overwhelmed by the stories he heard from people who talked about how much his performance had affected them. But, in the end, he could not see it as anything but a missed opportunity. He could have won. Hell, he should have won. And he did not win. And while deep in his heart he has to know it’s different, he still put that 2009 British Open on the pile of all the tournament that he let get away.
“It’s about the wins,” he told me then and many other times before and after. He means it. I’ve told this before but it’s worth repeating: Tom and I both sponsored teams in the RBI Program (Reviving Baseball in the Inner City). And one day a few years back I casually mentioned to him that our teams of sixth graders would be playing each other. And without hesitation, without warning, his face suddenly went dark, and he glared hard at me, and he said: “We’ll kick your a–.” He was not joking. He meant it.
And so I watched him closely on those final few holes in Louisville on Sunday. He was trying to become the oldest golfer to win a Senior Major Championship since 1947, which is only interesting because i had no idea they HAD Senior Major Championships in 1947. In any case, I thought I could tell even through the television how badly he wanted this one. For one thing: He was smiling a lot, and the Watson smile can be deceiving. The smile does not necessarily mean he’s happy. The smile sometimes covers up the hunger. He was smiling like that before he announced that his sixth grade team would kick the a– of my sixth grade team. He smiled a lot after the heartbreak of Turnberry.
Watson made some big putts Sunday. He would say that there were a couple of putts on the back nine that made the difference and then, in perfect Watson form, he changed it to say there actually were THREE putts that made the difference. Tom is nothing if not precise. He could have won the tournament on 17, when his putt stopped 1/10 of an inch short. He could have won the tournament on 18 when he pushed his final putt. He did win the tournament on the first playoff hole when he made sand-save birdie, the last 3-foot-putt dead center.
What does it mean? You could make the argument — with Watson nearly winning the British Open at 59, and winning a Senior PGA at 61 — that he is the greatest old golfer in the history of the game. The argument, would of course, include Nicklaus and Irwin and Sam Snead (the oldest to win the PGA Tour) and a few others. The argument also probably wouldn’t interest too many people, Watson least of all.
Watson beat a man named David Eger who played an inspired tournament, and I mean this kindly, I had never heard of him before Sunday. I mean it kindly because Eger, after a forgettable PGA Tour career (one top 10 finish), reinvented himself as an older golfer and he has won four times on the Tour. That makes him a great story.
And that’s how golf stories usually go. Most brilliant young golfers lose their game when they are young. And some struggling young golfers some find their form in their later years. Only one golfer, as far as I know, did both.