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Understanding The Complicated and Legendary Tom Watson

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He's winding it down, the whole show. Tom Watson is the last great one-man band in golf.

Even in his prime he never had an instructor at his side. There's an orthopedist on his speed dial, but no psychologist. He doesn't tell cute anecdotes involving spousal swing tips. His wife, Hilary, once told me that when he wakes up at home, in a farmhouse in the countryside outside Kansas City, he is not Tom Watson. That is, the Hall of Fame golfer with the tight smile you know from TV. He's just Tommy (as his boyhood friends called him), buttoning a plaid flannel shirt while listening to Fox News. It is only at tournaments, after he puts on his Ralph Lauren golf duds and his Adams Golf baseball cap, that he turns into Tom Watson, iconic golfer. We'll see that Tom Watson when he plays at St. Andrews in July, which most likely will be his last appearance in a British Open. We'll see that Tom Watson next week at Augusta National.

He doesn't play much anymore on the senior tour and almost never with the "flat bellies," a phrase he appropriated from Lee Trevino, another go-it-alone icon. Augusta will be an exception. Next week Watson will play the Masters for the 42nd time. He'll be in plain view for the first time since last year's (from an American point of view) depressing, almost banal Ryder Cup. After this year there won't be many more appearances in the Masters. One would be a good guess. Since 1998 he has missed 15 of 17 cuts there. He's 65.

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That makes him a pensioner, as they say in Great Britain, where he won five claret jugs and is beloved. On this side of the Atlantic you could not make such a broad claim. But nothing is chiseled in stone for Watson, in terms of his reputation. Not yet. Alastair Johnston, a cog at IMG in its Mark McCormack heyday, says that Jack Nicklaus reinvented himself after his playing days, erasing all vestiges of Fat Jack, the country-club rich kid who took down Arnold Palmer. His competitiveness mellowed, and he turned into sociable Uncle Jack. The various Nicklaus farewells had something to do with all that. Watson was playing with Jack when the latter made a last trip to the British Open, at the Old Course in 2005. On that Friday, Watson was more involved in Jack's play than he was in his own.

I'm not suggesting that Watson needs or wants a makeover. Frank Graham, a New York golden age sportswriter, once wrote of Babe Ruth's teammate Bob Meusel in his final season, "He's learning to say hello when it's time to say goodbye." It's not at that level with Watson. The five Opens, the two green jackets, the one U.S. Open, the admirable self-reliance—none of that is going anywhere. But the inky stamp he will ultimately leave on the game is still wet. Right now that 2014 Ryder Cup loss and its unnecessary and odious aftermath cling to him. So does a personality that is—let's be frank here—prickly. He's always been wired kind of tight. Once, in an interview with Watson, I incorrectly mentioned that Barack Obama ran for president as a two-term U.S. senator. "Two terms?" Watson shot back. "Try middle of his first term!" At the height of the Tiger Woods sex scandal, when most players were reluctant to talk about it, Watson told CNN that Woods "needs to clean up his act." Last year at Augusta National, he stopped Jimmy Walker before he had played his first shot in his first Masters and abruptly asked him, "Do you think you can win?"

Photo:

Tom Watson will be playing in his 42nd Masters this week.

Jim Furyk is an independent thinker who admires Watson but also has a clear-eyed view of him. Furyk said there was a moment, early in the infamous, painful losers' press conference last year at Gleneagles when Watson lost his players. Asked by a reporter to explain what the U.S. team needed to do differently in Ryder Cup play, Watson said, "Our team has to play better. That's the obvious answer. And they do—I think they recognize that fact. Somehow, collectively, 12 players have to play better." At Doral last month Furyk said, "When he said they, I think that changed the whole tenor of that press conference. I think that kind of opened the door for Phil [Mickelson] to say what he said." Furyk believes that Watson separated himself from his team and its painful loss.

Going forward, a lot can happen for Watson. Unfortunately for him, he now has to do it with his words and his body language and not with his old standbys, his sand wedge and his putter. He most likely gets that. When I asked him last month if he would like to sit between Woods and Mickelson at the champions dinner in the Augusta National clubhouse next week, Watson said, "Sure!" Which is amazing, because at the 2013 U.S. Open, at Merion, at a dinner for former winners of the national championship, Woods and Watson sat next to each other and shared about six words. He is not taking Mickelson on a hunting trip anytime soon.

Ceremonies, big and small, have never been more important in golf. Ben Crenshaw, 63, will make his Augusta farewell this year. Watson, for his part, has had more than enough of 36-hole appearances at Augusta, on a course he says, in his matter-of-fact way, is now far too long for him. But by delaying his exit until next year, he's clearing the stage so that Crenshaw may have Friday afternoon (barring a golfing miracle) to himself. Crenshaw's career has been defined by his captaincy of the 1999 Ryder Cup comeback at Brookline and his two Masters wins, along with his gentlemanly charm and the various old-timey courses he has designed. You'll never put Watson's golfing life in a neat box like that.

This is a relatively new development in golf, all these au revoir events for the game's fading stars, all but invented by Arnold Palmer at the 1994 U.S. Open. In truth, these occasions are golf's version of that midsummer day each year when all eyes in baseball turn to the inductees in Cooperstown. Palmer was built for that sort of thing, in the way Ben Hogan decidedly was not. As it happens, Palmer and Hogan are the two golfers who most influenced Watson when he was coming up in the game, long before he got to know Byron Nelson and Jack Nicklaus. Palmer was Watson's on-course model. (He liked to go for broke.) Hogan was his off-course ideal. (He truly believed the secret was in the dirt.) And now Watson is at the point in his life where he has to consider how he will play it out. Where will he fall in the Hogan-Palmer spectrum?

People who know Watson—Hilary; Andy North and his wife, Sue; his ancient friend Sandy Tatum; former PGA of America president Ted Bishop; Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara—will tell you he has no interest in the look-at-me developments of modern life. But he understands that golf, like everything else, has certain cultural expectations, and he's been giving in to them. So there he was last September, sitting in an NBC studio announcing his Ryder Cup captain's picks in a painfully contrived TV show. He is learning, finally, to pick his battles more selectively. Once, his old-before-his-time crankiness was legendary on Tour. (Gary Player, Gary McCord, Woods, Bill Murray and various caddies and tournament officials have been on the receiving end of it.) But he's changing. You want a menu signed? He'll sign. (Don't worry if you don't get the reference. You have to be a golf fan of a certain vintage, or a deep student of Ryder Cup history, to understand it.)

Photo:

Tom Watson after winning the 1981 Masters.

At his last public outing, at that Sunday-night press conference at the Ryder Cup, you could see a little of everything. Watson said the obvious truth, that the players need to play better. Mickelson, in a stunning display of passive aggressiveness, eviscerated his captain by praising Paul Azinger's winning strategy and his system of pods. A reporter with a British accent, happy to stir the pot, followed up by asking Watson if he thought Mickelson was being disloyal.

"Not at all," Watson said. "He has a difference of opinion. That's O.K. My management philosophy is different than his." It was a remarkable display of restraint, but it only lasted so long. Later, he said, "You know, it takes 12 players to win. It's not pods. It's 12 players." If there was a device that could measure disdain, it might have fried when Watson uttered the word pods.

It was actually the most uncomfortable and oddly captivating piece of golf theater you could ever imagine, except that it was indoors and golf is an outdoor game. I don't know what the 25-and-under crowd can do to really understand Watson's greatness. I guess you start with his stirring near-victory at age 59 at the 2009 British Open. Eventually, courtesy of YouTube and masters.com, you will work your way back to the 1980s and '70s, when Watson contended at Augusta National again and again and again and added to the lore of the place and the glamour of the tournament as much as anybody not named Arnold or Jack. It was the way he walked, the shots he played, the putts he holed. He was in short sleeves when others were wearing sweaters.

I asked Watson if he'd continue to attend the champions dinner, even after his playing days are over.

"Yes," he said, without hesitation. If you've been watching him his whole career, since the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot when he was the 54-hole leader, you can't recall a moment when he ever hesitated. His decisiveness has always been a part of his appeal. "That's a great tradition, and I'll always come to that dinner."

He hosted it twice. Raymond Floyd helped Watson slip into his first green jacket, in 1977. Seve Ballesteros held Watson's coat when he won his second, in '81. That was it, despite at least a half-dozen subsequent chances. You know why he contended so often? Because he holed more putts in any good year than most guys will in five. They try to make golf sound so complicated on TV. Watson has news for you: It ain't. He loves that word, by the way. An ain't here and an ain't there is the Stanford-educated Watson's way of keeping it real. After losing to Stewart Cink in a four-hole playoff at the British, his first words at the press conference were "This ain't a funeral, you know." Had Watson won, it would have been one of the most extraordinary athletic feats ever. And that is how he started. How can you not admire that?

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Floyd was one of Watson's assistant captains at Gleneagles, and Ballesteros put a knife in his golfing heart. (See: 1984 British Open, St. Andrews.) You get Watson at dinner, he'll talk about both men forever. He feels golf as deeply as anybody who has ever played. At the end of the day, that should be at the heart of his legacy. But it's not.

That's because Watson has been the game's last great stoic, and who values that today? Bubba Watson cries more in a week at Augusta than Tom Watson has in his career. He hides hurt, and he papers over his internal life with that cryptic grin of his. When the Ryder Cup press conference was over, Bishop drove Watson to the team hotel. Bishop was hurting, and he knew Watson had to be hurting more. "And Watson looks at me and says, 'This too shall pass.' "

If Watson has, to use a modern term, a fan base in this country, I am not aware of it. What he has is admirers, and I happen to be among them, even though he can be a haughty know-it-all. He demonstrated true greatness on the course, intense fidelity to the game's rule book and traditions. He did not play the blame game. For 40 years now we saw the Huck Finn gap between his two front teeth, but did we ever see him really smile? Yes, but not often. Only when he meant it.

He seems more like a World War II veteran, and he looks older than he is. Hogan did too, by the way. Watson's many nights of smoking and drinking; his many days in the sun and the wind; the divorce from his first wife, Linda, the mother of his two children; all those long-haul flights to and from Great Britain and Japan and South Africa and China—you're not going to do all that and wake up looking younger. He looks like a man who has led a hard life, even with all he has achieved. The way our culture is now, it seems as if the goal is to make everything look easy. Watson ain't built for that.

"Hogan came back to Augusta for the Masters dinner in '78," Watson told me.

I was surprised to learn that. I had always heard and read that Hogan, a two-time Masters champion, never returned to Augusta after he played for the final time, in 1967. It was the only time the two men shared a meal.

"Did he come back because you were hosting?" I asked.

It was a bad question. It was too personal.

"I don't know," Watson said. "That would be speculation."

Watson doesn't do speculation. His stock-in-trade has always been hard fact and ruthless analysis. Here is the ball. What can I do with it? In his prime he didn't play nice, and he certainly didn't put on a show. No, I take that back. He did. There was nothing cooler than watching Watson in his prime with his ball in the air. His face told you absolutely nothing. Man, was that great.

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