Frontlines

The world’s best golf, by Watson

Ken Becker June 25 1979
Frontlines

The world’s best golf, by Watson

Ken Becker June 25 1979

The world’s best golf, by Watson

Frontlines

PORTRAIT

Ken Becker

Muirfield Village is a complex of luxurious homes surrounding the Memorial golf course on 245 acres of woods and rolling hills just northwest of Columbus, Ohio. Jack Nicklaus was born in Columbus. Jack Nicklaus attended Ohio State University in Columbus. The Muirfield Village Golf Club was conceived by Jack Nicklaus. The Memorial course was designed by Jack Nicklaus.

The Memorial tournament, held the last weekend in May since 1976, is hosted by Jack Nicklaus. The trophy room in the clubhouse contains everything from Jack Nicklaus’ teething ring to his Masters’ jackets. A wall at the clubhouse is covered with Sports Illustrated covers. Every one—and there are dozens—bears the visage of Jack Nicklaus. The pro shop is stocked with golf shirts, the label signed by Jack Nicklaus, the pocket graced with a Golden Bear. It was at Muirfield this past U.S. Memorial Day weekend that Jack Nicklaus grew old and Tom Watson grew up.

The 15th hole at Memorial is a par 5, 490 yards from the championship tees to the centre of the pear-shaped green. For the professionals, a perfect drive will crest the hill of the fairway, leaving about 200 to 220 yards to the elevated green and a chance for an eagle 3.

Tom Watson stood over his ball at the crest of that hill in the opening round of the Memorial tournament. At that point in the round he was two over par. An eagle would drop him back to even par, not a bad place to be on a damp, chilly afternoon on a demanding golf course like Memorial. But neither of his playing partners, Miller Barber and Gil

Morgan, had reached the green with his second shot. Both had been in good position to do so, Morgan with the same two-iron Watson held in his hands. Watson never hesitated. Champions are not indecisive. The ball began its flight on a low trajectory, then seemed to release its after-burners as it climbed toward the green.

“Get up,” Watson commanded. The ball climbed higher.

“Up!” he ordered. The ball cleared the hill in front of the green.

“All the way,” he demanded. It came to rest two feet from the cup.

The crowd around the green applauded, though from 200 yards away they could not distinguish the face above the white shoes, blue slacks and grey sweater. But the gal lery the fairway^ passed the word up to the green, a' 200-yard game of telephone with the answer nonetheless clear: “Wat-

son.” The applause grew as the young man approached the green. Seeing the best player in golf make the best shot of the day seemed to please everybody. Everybody, that is, except the man in the red and white checked slacks, red and white patent leather shoes, red shirt, white cardigan and wraparound sunglasses. “Jeez,” the man said. “He makes it look too easy.”

The man said his name was Sol—“No last names, please, for professional reasons.” He said he was from Cleveland where he ran a clothing store and a little book on the side. He said he bet every week on golf tournaments and went to watch them whenever he could. “I like to see who I’m betting on,” he said. “Right now, like everybody else, I’m betting on Watson. But let me tell you something. I don’t enjoy it. Palmer was a pleasure to get rich off of. Nicklaus has class. But this kid . . . Bettin’ on this kid is like ordering liverwurst on Wonderbread with mayonnaise ...

“See what I mean,” said Sol. Watson had just stroked in his eagle putt. He reached into the cup with his left hand and extracted the ball; with his right hand he acknowledged the crowd’s applause with all the warmth of royalty waving from a passing carriage. He mouthed a “thank you,” though no sound emerged. He smiled his gaptoothed smile. “He’s money in the bank,” said Sol, “but who wants to spend a day off in a bank.”

When the round was over, Watson had a one over par 73. When the tournament was over, he had the title and the $54,000 first prize. Nicklaus handed Watson the tropy. The old king said: “There is no doubt about it, this man is playing the best golf in the world right now.” The young king accepted the trophy, “from a great player.” As befits the genteel world of golf, it was a bloodless coup. But it’s always difficult to watch a coronation with the old king standing by.

It was inevitable, though. And it tested the memories of those who kicked and screamed when upstart Nicklaus deposed the last golf king, Arnold Palmer. It’s easy to forget that Arnie’s Army once booed Nicklaus, sneezed on his backswing, jeered his brilliant shots. But Nicklaus was surely the better. So, when pudgy, crew-cut Nicklaus matured, trimmed his waistline and let his hair grow, spoke with dignity and an appreciation of his game and its supporters, he too was embraced. But every time Jack’s game slipped a bit, every time a new face went on a winning spree, there was talk of king-making. Several—Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Hubert Green—seemed about to overtake Nicklaus only to watch him grab his crown back and wear it more securely than ever. Until now. Until Watson.

Age is the critical factor here. Tom Watson was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on Sept. 4, 1949. This September, Watson turns 30. Next January, Nicklaus turns 40. Coincidentally, this year, also in September, Arnold Palmer turns 50. The numbers seem to indicate that it’s as good a time as any for the game to

go through another transition; though no one figured Watson would speed that transition with such vengeance.

Already this spring, through the Memorial tournament, Watson has won four PGA tour events and $353,874; with half the season to go he is less than $10,000 from the record $362,429 he won last year. Since turning pro in 1971, he has won more than $1.5 million, and 15 tour events, including the ’77 Masters, excluding the ’75 and ’77 British Opens. His credentials as a player are exemplary. But in the PR-conscious world of the

PGA tour, especially with U.S. television ratings down this year, Watson has to do much more than play the game better than anyone else.

“Tom Watson has an obligation to himself and to golf and to the people,” says someone who should know, Arnold Palmer. “Tom is the guy coming on right now and that places certain responsiblities on his shoulders. Some of the obligations he assumes just by showing up. But he also has an obligation to turn the people on. I don’t think it will be a problem for him. I think he’ll learn to enjoy it.”

Right now, Tom Watson is playing it all very close to the vest. In an interview before the Memorial he was humble— “There’s always going to be someone who dominates the game but who knows if it’s going to be Tom Watson”; respectful—“Because Jack has cut down on his schedule and isn’t playing well people ask me if I’m now the best player in the world. It’s a premature comparison”; shy—“I know I now have responsibilities to TV and the press, but I’m not fond of public speaking. I know I have to do more and I hope I’ll get better.”

But the over-all impression is that Watson would just as soon everybody went away and left him alone. Striking a golf ball with a golf club is what interests him. Doing it well and with consistency. Winning in itself is immaterial. “Winning as a result of playing well is what it’s all about,” he says. Watson has won golf tournaments and gone straight to the practice tee. He remembers only the mistakes. He seeks perfection in a sport supported by guys trying to break 100. He likes to run wire-towire in a sport that has cherished Arnie’s famous charges and Jack’s miracle finishes.

This week, Watson will make his first appearance at another Nicklaus-designed golf course, Glen Abbey in Oakville, Ontario, permanent site of the Canadian Open. The sponsors are glad to have him. “From a marketing point of view,” says tournament chairman David Brooks, “Tom is a great drawing card.”

But what if Watson showed up and Nicklaus, or even Palmer, didn’t?

“Well,” said Brooks, “we’ve had two pretty successful tournaments [at Glen Abbeyl without Tom Watson. He just does not have that magnetism yet . . . But I think he’s getting it.”

Next year, after the scheduled birth of Tom and Linda Watson’s first child in September, Tom plans to cut his schedule from 30 to 25 tournaments. Right now, there are 25 tournament chairmen hoping that by then Tom Watson will “have it.”^