Major Tom: Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson on his near-miss at Turnberry, his relationship with Tiger, and Barack Obama's golf habit
In person, Tom Watson looks older than his 64 years. The raw, weathered face. The rounded shoulders. You can't help but think, How did this man nearly cash a check for a major win at an age when he should have been cashing in his IRA? As painful as his 72nd-hole bogey was to watch that year, the memories from that 2009 Open at Turnberry no longer trouble Watson. In fact, he fondly remembers a special phone call he received in the aftermath from his friend and old rival, Jack Nicklaus. That wild ride didn't break Watson. Not even close.
This year, he's tweeting (at 64!) while monitoring the play of Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson and the rest of Team USA in anticipation of his Ryder Cup captaincy in September. When discussing the subject, Watson suddenly seems younger. He gets fired up like someone half his age.
Watson welcomed us into his photo-and-trophy filled Kansas City office to discuss winning, losing and the challenges of skippering a Ryder Cup team. There were awkward silences. When an eight-time major winner doesn't want to answer a question, he's not answering the question. Like a cherished swing key, there are just some secrets that a golfer prefers to keep.
It's been five years since you almost became the oldest major champion ever. If the British Open were at Turnberry this year, could you win?
Probably not, in the condition my game is in. I'm losing some distance. Even my putting that week wasn't any good until Tuesday, when I changed it. And it worked for 71 holes.
What change did you make?
I rotated my shoulders and started hitting my putts more solidly. Nothing with grip or stance. More of a rotation, so the club fanned open and then shut in the stroke. I did it out of frustration.
Was Tuesday when you first realized you might be able to contend?
Wednesday was the day, because I confirmed it. I played a practice round on Tuesday, and the putting really worked well. But then it worked the day after, and I really knew I had something. Wednesday night I told my wife, Hilary, right before I went to sleep, "I can win this thing."
You had a one-stroke lead heading to the 72nd hole and needed a par to win a sixth Claret Jug. How often do you think about that final hole?
Only when you guys bring it up. But it's all right. It's part of the deal. It's part of what I am.
If we gave you a mulligan on that last hole in regulation, would you want to redo the approach shot, the chip or that 8-foot putt?
The chip shot. I would have chipped it rather than putted it. It was a 50-50 choice. The speed was the biggest factor on the par putt, and I just goosed it too much. I'd have a little bit better chance of chipping the ball closer, but I'd also have a bigger chance of flubbing it because the ball was sitting down. I'd leave myself with a 15-footer rather than, at worst with a putt, a 10-footer.
Does that decision still eat at you?
It was the biggest question I had. In his phone call, Jack [Nicklaus] said, "You played the right shot." That was such a kind comment from somebody who really knows the game. He said, "You gave yourself the best percentages." That relieved some of the anguish I was feeling at the time. We're friends, but to have him call almost immediately afterward—he knew how I was feeling. He's felt that way, probably because of me chipping the ball in on him [at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 1982] or making that putt at Turnberry on the 15th hole [at the 1977 British Open].
What else did Jack say during that call?
He tried, in his own Nicklausian way, to say that I actually won the tournament. I said, "Jack, I didn't win the tournament." He said, "You beat everybody in the field." I said, "No, I tied one, and I lost in a playoff." He said, "No, you won. You beat everybody in the field." That logic didn't get through to me. I lost. It was an extremely painful loss. But I try to live in reality. I got there, which is the important thing, and I had the opportunity, and I didn't make the best of my opportunity. The game can be brutal at times, and it was brutal in that moment. Winning would have made one hell of a story.
Your approach shot bounced over the green on the 18th. Would you still hit that 8-iron?
Under the circumstances, it was the right shot. It got a pretty good extra gust of wind, and it hit on the downslope. There's just a little, tiny downslope on the left front of the green. It's not even from me to your face, and then it levels out. [ESPN commentator] Andy North was there, and he said it hit right on that downslope. So, you know, that's the game.
You were almost 60 at the time. Is a fiftysomething going to win a major soon?
You've got Vijay in his 50s. Davis Love is 50. Freddie's had some good opportunities at the Masters. So, yes. It's not even in the realm of improbable. I think there will be someone who wins a major in their 50s. In your 50s you still have all your faculties. You really do. The way these guys train, there's no reason why someone in their 50s can't win.
Where do you get your competitive drive?
I go back to my competitiveness with my older brother, Ridge—and competing in the neighborhood, all the games we used to play. I was trying to be the fastest runner until I got waxed by Whitney Neal in the fourth grade. It was a down-the-playground-and-back race. Regretfully, she's passed, but she was a sweetheart. That deflated my ego a bit [laughs].
And she toughened you up.
That's right. One other thing was, I got cut from a Midget B baseball club when I was nine. I played baseball when I was eight, and now there was no baseball for the summer. So I started playing a lot of golf. Fortunately, I had a place where I could go play—Kansas City Country Club. I played by myself or with other kids. It was a luxury. But that event changed the direction of my life.
How will you know when it's time to stop playing?
That's a good question. I'm losing distance now. When the course start getting too long for approach shots, I'll have to try some different smoke and mirrors to get it done.
Let's say there was a Ryder Cup between the 12 best senior players and the 12 best from the PGA Tour. Would the old-timers have a chance?
Nah, we have no shot. We may hit it straighter, but on a 7,000-yard course, we've got no shot.
What if this Young Guns vs. Old Guard match happened on a shorter Scottish course?
You can always make the case that a particular course is going to negate the length for the kids, but when it's all said and done, they're thoroughbreds, and we're quarter horses.
You're skippering the American Ryder Cup team in September, for the second time. What are your strengths and weaknesses as a captain?
My strengths are that I've been there before [in 1993] and have the experience. And I have an absolute desire to do everything possible to set the stage for them to win. Weaknesses? I don't know. Maybe compassion. I have passion, but maybe compassion is something [I lack]. I expect these players to go out and take care of business. I fully think that the reason they'll want to win is because we lost the 2012 Ryder Cup.
Back to the topic of compassion. If you have a hot player in a morning session who asks to sit out the afternoon, will that not fly?
No, that's not it. I'm not accepting of whiners.
Is a player saying he's too tired to play a form of whining?
I don't put it in that context. It's more about letting the little things bother you. I don't have time for that. Insignificant things, people who aren't focused on what they're trying to do.
Fred Couples wrote in one of your instruction books that he considers you one of golf's best strategists. Will you strategize with your Ryder Cup players?
That's up to the players and their caddies. I won't tell them what to do out there. They have to do what they think is right in that moment. I'm there to assist them by providing for their physical needs and, at times, their mental needs. We'll see how that comes up. I don't have a game plan for that, but that's where my experience comes in because I've been there before.
Have you thought about what you're going to say to the guys on Saturday night if you're behind, tied, or ahead?
Care to offer a preview?
If Tiger Woods is healthy and hasn't qualified on points, will he be an automatic captain's pick?
I've said it before that he's an automatic pick. You can't have a player of that caliber not on the team. But that has to be weighed next to what his health is. I hope he can get back in the swing, because he wasn't playing his best even before the surgery. But if he's not physically right, Tiger will be the first one to tell me.
You were critical of Tiger a few years ago for his behavior on the course, his cursing—
That's under the bridge.
—and last fall you said you intended to sit down with him to clear the air. Did that happen?
Do you plan on having that talk with Tiger?
I'm not going to go into it.
How would you characterize your relationship with him?
We don't know each other very well.
Do you think it's important for the two of you to get to know each other better?
I think it's important to know everybody a little better, not just Tiger.
Have you been on teams where there's tension, or everyone isn't on the same page?
Who besides Tiger is a lock for a captain's pick?
You'd have to think about Phil, with his worth to the teams and the inspiration he's been to our players. I want guys to be firing on all cylinders. That's one reason I went to [PGA of America president] Ted Bishop and [PGA Tour commissioner] Tim Finchem and asked for a week off before the Ryder Cup and after the FedEx Cup series. I think that rest is extremely healthy for the team.
What would winning the Cup mean to you?
It would be a very significant part of my career, to be part of a winning Ryder Cup team again. It's a great event, and the excitement is starting to build. I've enjoyed getting to know the players—guys I haven't known before. But I won't go in there and win it. The players will win it. And that's the number-one goal. It's the focus that I have right now, and I'm enjoying the process. And if everything goes the way I hope it goes, I'll give all the credit to the players.
Let's shift gears. A hypothetical: If the crafty, experienced Tom Watson of today plays a match against the fearless Tom Watson of 1980, who would win?
I'd say 1980 Watson kicks my butt, 6 and 5.
Speaking of youth, which of today's young players most reminds you of yourself?
Brandt Snedeker. He plays fast—I don't talk as fast as Brandt—but there's a lot of similarities between Brandt and myself. He has a keep-it-simple type of method. He's always looking for a way to make his swing better. All the kids do that, but he's got his head screwed on right.
What do you think of when you hear the name "Jack Nicklaus"?
Actually, I think of Barbara [Nicklaus's wife of 54 years]. Getting to know Barbara and her practical-joking behavior. I just love that about her. She keeps the egos in check in that family, which is wonderful. She keeps everybody down to earth. She has plastic ants she'll put in your glass of water. She'll carry ants for good luck, or do impish things. She's wonderful.
What do you love most about Jack?
He plays the game with the same passion he had as a kid. I understand what it was like to be a kid and play with that passion. Jack was the same way. We played a lot of competitive rounds that were serious. And we played a lot of practice rounds that were not that serious. I said to him once, "Jack, you don't play in any real money games, do you?" He said, "No, I'm trying to beat these guys Thursday to Sunday. Why do I need to beat them in practice rounds for money?" I think Jack was the best strategist I've ever played with. He was the best at hitting the proper shot at the proper time. I've learned a lot from him.
When and where are you happiest today?
At home, on my [Bucyrus, Kansas] farm with my family.
Do you ever wish life was less complicated and you could spend more time there?
I'm very happy with my life. I am what I am. I don't worry about anything that I can't control. That's a really good lesson in life.
David Feherty has spoken movingly about how you were the one who convinced him to get help dealing with alcholism—that you saved his life.
He saved his own life.
How did it feel to hear him say that?
It felt great. It felt great that somebody could make a life-changing decision based on something you might have an influence with.
You've admitted to your own struggles. What's the hardest part about quitting drinking?
I'm not going to go into that.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
I hope that I've been able to treat people with the respect they've shown me. That's basically the tenet you try to live by. I haven't been successful at it all my life, but that's what I strive for.
What book is currently on your nightstand?
Killing Jesus, by Bill O'Reilly. I'm learning about the way religion is portrayed in society.
What makes you frustrated or angry?
The state of our country, how much we're in debt. How much Obamacare has failed in its beginning stages, and the government not fessing up to say it made a mistake. We still print money to keep things going. We live in a bubble economic world. Our real estate is still in dire straits. No one wants to talk about that. We don't want to talk about the cost of the changes in government that have been brought upon by the present administration.
If you had five minutes with President Obama, what would you talk about?
Really? You clearly have strong political opinions, but you'd stick to talking golf?
I'd try to give him a lesson to make him a better golfer. I'm really happy that our president plays golf. It's great. Some pundits bad-mouth him for playing so much—I love that he plays golf. I love it. And, well, that's probably the only thing we have in common.