Among pros who’ve played by the numbers, Tom Watson was the theory of relativity to the third-grade multiplication tables of his peers. A self-proclaimed “scoreboard watcher,” Watson learned to win by beating the potential for losing out of every cell. Although he won 39 times on the PGA Tour, including eight majors, Watson is best known as the man who took down Jack Nicklaus at a time when the rest of the guys on Tour jumped at the mere sight of Nicklaus’ shadow. From his chip-in on the 71st hole at Pebble Beach to beat Nicklaus and win the 1982 U.S. Open to the epic showdown at Turnberry in 1977 (where Watson won the British Open with closing rounds of 65-65 to Nicklaus’ 65-66), Watson’s career is famously linked with Jack’s. But Watson’s career is also — arguably more so than any other player — connected to his brain, a statistician’s mind still wired and greased for competition that says he’s got some wins left against “the kids” before following Jack into the sunset.
How satisfying is it to know that you are the guy who beat Jack Nicklaus head-to-head in the majors more dramatically than anyone else?
It’s not satisfying from the standpoint that I beat him more than anybody else. I just happened to be able to win some important championships when Jack was right there. It came down to just Jack and me. And as history is going to write it, these were times that Jack didn’t win. But as I look at it and put it in perspective, Jack won 18 major championships and posted 48 top-3 finishes in major championships and he was there a lot more than I ever was. He lost more than he won, but that’s the nature of the game. And I was just fortunate enough to be there, and it defined my career to win the British Open at Turnberry, the Masters against Jack in ’77 and the U.S. Open in ’82. When people remember who I am, or who I was, what they remember is those championships.
And how is that you were also the guy who didn’t buy into that old line that “he knew that you knew that he knew he was going to beat you”?
Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know that when you go and play against the best, you can go and use reverse psychology and say, “Well, I’m not supposed to win, at least not in anybody else’s mind, but in my mind, this is what I wanna do. I wanna beat the best.” And so you can use that psychology to get you through the tight times.
Where did that steely confidence come from?
Well, the confidence had to be built over my career. I didn’t learn to win until basically after four or five years on the Tour.
What do you mean by “learning how to win”? How do you learn victory?
From experiences of losing. Going back over your losses and finding what caused you to lose, and not ever doing it again. I’ve said many times, “You learn to win through not liking to lose.” And that’s what I mean by learning how to win.
For a while you didn’t feel like you belonged, but your victory at Turnberry made you feel like you finally did?
When I won those tournaments in 1977, I played to a level that I had never reached before. And I thought that if I reached this level, then I can compete against the best. If I didn’t think that I could do it after that, then I didn’t have the type of confidence that I needed to have a long career.
How did you become such a fearless putter?
I always could putt. Part of my makeup, I?always could putt.
Didn’t Jim Colbert once tell you to take more time over those short comebackers, and you responded, “Why?”
Yeah, I just never had any fear of missing. The older I got, the more fear I had of missing. And that’s an unfortunate negative that gets into your psyche and makes a big difference in how you putt. It seems like it was harder for Jack to win majors than it is for Tiger today — his foes seem to lack the killer instinct of earlier players, perhaps because everybody’s a millionaire. Do you believe money has corrupted the game? Oh, yes I do. I think money corrupts inherently. If you’re not hungry enough, there’s something about having it too easy that doesn’t let you be competitive enough.
Do today’s obscene first-place paychecks take some competition out of finishing high on the money list?
One of the things you find is that it’s awfully easy to make a fortune out here. Not only from what you make on the Tour, but also your pension plan. And the players see that this is a great way to make a huge fortune, and you don’t necessarily have to win to do it. In the old days you had to do really well [to earn a decent living]. Today, you have $1 million first prizes, and half a million dollar second prizes, and that’s unfortunate. And what does that do to your competitive spirit? It corrupts it.
So would you cut those first-place prizes down if you were commissioner?
No, what I would do is this: It’s 125 exempt, I would take that down to 100 exempt, and I think that would help. It would make the Tour more competitive, and the players more competitive. I think we’re reaping what we’ve sown as far as the competitive spirit on the Tour goes. We’ve seen it on the Ryder Cup — the Ryder Cup has shown that the American players on paper may be pretty good, but the bottom line is that when the pressure’s on, they haven’t been able to pull it off.
You didn’t have dazzling amateur credentials. To what do you attribute your spectacular success as a pro?
My career was one of just taking it step by step. I didn’t know how I was gonna fare on the professional circuit when I qualified. I didn’t know whether I was gonna make a dime. I didn’t know anything but this one thing: I had some dreams and I was gonna work harder than anybody out here to ply my trade.
Do you think you worked harder than anybody out there at the time?
I think if you look back on it, I probably did. And I hit more balls practicing, because I didn’t know how to swing a golf club. I didn’t learn how to swing a golf club until late in my career. And even though I won all those tournaments, I still struggled with consistency and I relied on my strengths, which were hitting the ball long and high, and I could chip and putt with the best of ’em.
Do the Senior Tour wins stand in the same ZIP code of personal achievement as your regular PGA Tour victories?
No. They don’t. The Senior Tour is a competitive tour, and I do enjoy the competition, but I still like to compete against the kids twice a year. I play the Masters and the British Open, and strangely enough, Nicklaus asked me just last week when we were playing an exhibition together on Prince Edward Island, he asked me, “What are you going to the British Open for?” And I said, “Well, I’m gonna go play in the British Open.” And he said, “What are you going to the British Open for?” [Laughs.] And I said, “To win it, smarty!” But he got his point across.
Do you think he has a point?
I’m still competitive, I know I’m still competitive. In certain situations, I can beat the kids.
What was the most memorable thing that Nicklaus said to you during your two rounds [Jack’s last at a major] at the 2005 British Open?
Oh, walking up to the 18th hole, Nicklaus said, “You’ve still got a golf tournament to play. Get serious.” We had tears in our eyes and I was watching the greatest player who ever played walk up the final fairway, and that was pretty emotional. And he said, “Get a handle on yourself, Tom. You’ve still got a tournament to play.” And that’s typical Jack. Jack always had a handle on how to hit a shot, how to plan a shot, and he was looking at me, trying to tell me, “Don’t get too caught up in what’s going on here. You gotta make par or birdie to make the cut and continue on in the tournament. This is just a moment in time.” That’s what he really meant: “This is a special moment in time, but it’s still just a moment, Tom. You still have your time to make your best effort.” And I appreciated that.
What’s your fondest memory of Bruce Edwards [Watson’s longtime caddie who died of ALS in 2004]?
Oh, I think just seeing him in the parking lot the first time that he asked me for a job. In St. Louis, walking out in 95-degree heat. In the shaded parking lot there in St. Louis, he said, “Tom, can I caddie for you?” And I said, “Sure, why not?”
How much money has Driving 4 Life raised for ALS?
I don’t know at this time, probably several million dollars. Right now there’s a trial going on for using the human genome, using 1,200 sporadic ALS patients and their DNA samples to try to find some sort of common link, if there is one. And that trial should be finished early next year in 2007. The road map is there.
It took you a long time to learn how to win. Should Michelle Wie spend more time learning to win at her own level, on the LPGA?
No. I just think she’s awfully young to be playing professional golf overall. I think she oughta grow up and have a little bit of a life as a teenager before she goes and plies her trade as a professional. And those are the words I used when I met her personally.
You hung around at the 2003 U.S. Open. Does much of you think you could still win on the PGA Tour?
Yeah! There are certain things I can win. I can’t hit the ball as far as these kids can, but given the right conditions — if I had soft conditions and a shorter golf course — I certainly could compete with the kids.
Herbert Warren Wind likened you to a gap-toothed huckleberry, the sort of Midwesterner one would picture “sucking on a stem of grass as he heads for the fishing hole with a pole over his shoulder.” What traits do you share with a Midwestern simple man?
I grew up in the city all my life, but now I live in the country. I enjoy the open spaces, the outdoors. I love to be outdoors any time of the day or night. As far as growing up in the Midwest, I like what I see here, I like the values, I enjoy seeing my lifelong friends. People ask why I didn’t move somewhere warm year-round, because “You’re a golfer!” Well, I’ve practiced here when there was snow on the ground, I’ve practiced here when it was 25 degrees. And that’s made me a better foul-weather player.
A tabloid in England, where you were a hero until you declined to autograph a dinner menu for opponent Sam Torrance at a 1993 Ryder Cup banquet, ran the screaming banner, YOU’RE A DISGRACE, WATSON. That had to sting, yes?
[Laughs.] Yeah, sure it did, sure it stung, but in the aftermath of that now, the autographs really just made your dinner hell, where you couldn’t eat, you couldn’t talk to your neighbor because you had 800 people wanting you to sign autographs, and I figured that wasn’t what my team needed at that stage in time. We weren’t there to sign 800 autographs at dinner; we were there to be presented, which we were, and I said, “We’ll sign the autographs later, which is fine.” But Sam didn’t care for that.
Gary McCord lost his Masters TV gig after you, offended by on-air quips during the 1994 Masters about “bikini wax” and “body bags,” sent a demand to CBS to “get rid of him, now.” What’s your relationship with McCord like today?
Oh, I had Gary out here in Kansas City to play in an event and we had a lot of fun. That incident, he had issues with it and I had issues with it. But we talked about it when he came out here and we got it off our chests.
You’ve said Stanford was disappointing during your college years. Why?
It was disappointing because of the era. The time of the Vietnam War, it was not a happy place. It was a volatile and destructive environment. It was just a matter of bad timing.
Your better college memories include predawn drives down the coast to Pebble Beach, where the starter let you play for free as a dew sweeper. What was that like?
I would play the golf course by myself and I would try to shoot a score, and I never shot better than 75 at Pebble Beach. But when I was standing at the 15th hole or the 16th hole, I thought, “Well if I can par the 18th hole, I’ll win the U.S. Open against Nicklaus.” And kids at my age then, they fantasized about being the best or beating the best, and of course Jack was the best.
What did your father teach you about competition?
I learned from watching him and watching how his friends played, because my dad was a competitive man. I also had the opportunity to play golf with friends of my father’s, the Bob Willises, and Stan Thursk, the pro here [at Kansas City CC], plus all the other friends who were mostly golf pros from around Kansas City. On the Mondays when the courses were closed, I had the chance to play with these guys, and they let me play some betting games, and it was just the way I grew up. I never went out with nothing on the line.
You once said, “I stopped drinking because I did some things that I didn’t like.” What kind of things?
I’m not gonna go into that. No.
You publicly criticized comedian Bill Murray for what you considered inappropriate antics during the 1993 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, including Murray’s waltzing of an elderly woman into a bunker. What angered you most about his actions?
Bill injured that lady. To get a laugh. However unintentional it was, he injured that lady. Who fell in the bunker. Who he pulled in the bunker.
You’ve said you’ll play till you can’t anymore. Do you still feel that way?
Yeah! I’m still in good shape. I still wanna show those kids that an old guy can play. Make that: that a not-so-old guy can still play.
THE WORD ON WATSON
Age: 57 Residence: Stilwell, Kan.
Turned pro: 1971
PGA Tour wins: 39 Major wins: 8
Champions Tour wins: 8
Career Earnings: $17,999,648
Official World Golf Ranking: 764
College: Stanford University, degree in psychology
Hobbies: Supporting the Kansas City Royals
Home course: Kansas City Country Club
Lowest score: 58, on his home course, just days after the greens had been aerated
Ryder Cup record: 10-4-1