NAPLES — I am going to tell you why Jimmy Walker, at age 35, has won three golf tournaments in the past five months after going oh for his first 188 Tour events. I’m going to tell you why every American player on this year’s Ryder Cup team will be a better player come October, if they are open to learning something. I’m going to tell you why signing up Tom Watson as U.S. Ryder Cup captain was a smart move by the PGA of America and Watson’s decision to bring in Ray Floyd as one of his assistants was smarter yet. I’m going to tell you how John Merrick won last year at Riviera, even though the marketing department would prefer you to call it (and understandably so) the Northern Trust Open.
To do all this, all I have to do is take you back to the 1968 Masters, Bob Goalby standing on the 18th green on Sunday, needing an eight-footer to post 277, which was going to give him a chance.
Goalby eyed the putt and gave himself one of the great pep talks in the history of sports: “Step in there, you gutless choking mother-f—— dog, and make this putt like a man.”
He made. He won. (Had Roberto De Vicenzo signed the correct scorecard, he and Goalby would have tied.)
Uncle Bob gave the quote to his nephew, Jay Haas. Jay gave it to his caddie, friend and golf teacher, Billy Harmon. Billy gave it to his pupil, John Merrick. Merrick used the Goalby quote when he had to make key putts down the stretch when winning in L.A. last year.
Curtis Strange is close to Jay and Billy. He knows Goalby and Billy’s brother Butch. I asked him the other day, at the senior event here, what he imagined Butch was doing for Jimmy Walker, since he started working with him in April. Curtis didn’t know the specifics, but he was in position to make a very good guess: a few adjustments in Walker’s action. (“Butch works with what you’ve got,” Strange said.) A few adjustments to his head. He surely had a different language, but what Butch tells his pupils, in different ways, is pretty much what Goalby told himself: man-up. Golf doesn’t change.
Floyd was in that ’68 Masters. He played the Tour hard then, when there was a Tour. (There’s no tour anymore. There’s a list of events, and the better players pick and choose the menu items that are most convenient for them. People used to say, “How long you out for?” That phrase is dead.) Back to Floyd. He finished in a tie for seventh, good for $3,460 and an invitation to the ’69 tournament.
Floyd, who is 72, isn’t going to regale the players in Scotland this year with how tough it was back in the day and all that other crap. But if they listen to him, if they actually ask him questions — the horror! — they might find out what it’s like to be your own swing coach and shrink, make your decisions, be your own man. The reason the golf of the Goalby-Floyd-Watson-Nicklaus era was so intoxicating is not because it was way back when. It’s not because their clubs were so primitive. It was better because it was played by men with wildly different swings and wildly different personalities.
Tom Watson and Tiger Woods will say all manner of nice things about each other in the coming months. They already have. I won’t believe it. They could not be more different and I believe they do not like each other. Body language tells a lot more than some practiced quote in a press conference in the Empire State Building or anywhere else. It does not matter. Woods will play his bottom off at Gleneagles. Not for Watson. For himself. For his pride. For his teammates. Because that’s what he knows how to do. It doesn’t matter whether you like Woods or don’t, the fact is he’s the only American player who would have been right at home playing against Bob Goalby. Nobody knows what his internal conversation is really like, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess it’s much closer to Goalby ’68 than “be the ball.”
The other day at Riviera, and then at the Ace Classic here, Watson tried to address this issue of whether he’s “in touch” with the young players and blah, blah, blah. He can say whatever he wants, and he will, but the truly relevant question is whether the 2014 American Ryder Cup players are going to learn something from him, from Floyd, from what Bob told Jay and Jay told Billy and Billy told that kid who won last year.
What they could get, in a manner of speaking, is a week with Butch Harmon, except that Watson and Floyd have such vast, vast experience as players. Butch was a pretty good player. Floyd’s an icon. As for Watson, he can go full Carnac on you. (See: Carson, Johnny.) Get over it, fellas because Watson knows what it’s like to step in there like a choking gutless dog and get the job done, or die trying. That is sports. That’s golf. Everything else is making a direct deposit in a bank where you never even see another human being and these soulless exchanges will kill us, if we let them.