Tom Watson

United States Captain Tom Watson

Tom Watson – The 2014 United States Ryder Cup Captain

Mitchell Platts looks at the background behind United States Ryder Cup Captain Tom Watson...

The young American was met early in the morning at the Ballybunion Golf Club by Ted Higgins, the professional, and Sean Walsh, the secretary/manager, not to mention 2,000 local enthusiasts eager to witness with their own eyes the Number One Golfer in the World.

Tom Watson had chosen to hone his game ahead of his 1981 defence of The Open Championship on the revered links set by the Shannon estuary in Co. Kerry on the west coast of Ireland. He teed-up with his good friends Sandy Tatum and Harry Easterly, both former Presidents of the United States Golf Association, and they played a convivial round with Walsh before enjoying what Watson, on his first visit, described as a “cheerful lunch” before retiring to the Marine Links Hotel.

That should have been that except that Watson and Tatum could not resist returning to the course - “After playing Ballybunion for the first time a man would think that the game of golf originated here,” Watson later said - but their attempt to enjoy a quiet 18 holes was foiled as word quickly spread that they were back on the course and the crowd which Watson warmly embraced swiftly grew again in numbers.

All of which goes some of the way to explaining why Thomas Sturges Watson is held in the highest respect in the world of sport. Quite simply, he has always understood the importance of entertaining the public even if he never courted the fame which inevitably disrupts private life.

Watson said: “Fame’s not important to me. Doing what I do for a living well is important to me. I am there to play golf, to entertain, to compete, to play my absolute best. That was always the dream from the age of 14.”

Ray Watson, his late father, an insurance broker, and at one time a scratch golfer, introduced Tom, born the second of three sons in Kansas City, Missouri, on September 4, 1949, to golf at the country club where he was a member and his influence extended beyond teaching the fundamentals to passing on a love for the game. Meanwhile his mother, Sally, chauffeured her son to compete in junior events on a variety of courses as he developed the swing initially shaped by first teacher Stan Thirsk.

Watson, naturally talented and massively determined, sensibly did not allow golf to become an obsession. He put down the clubs to play quarterback on the High School football team, winning the conference championship, and was an outstanding shooting guard when the basketball season began. He won trophies for sportsmanship but also did not escape punishment when once suspended for smoking at a dance.

Watson moved to Stanford University - the Harvard of the West - to prepare for a career in the insurance business, graduated with a degree in psychology and confessed: “Four years at Stanford didn’t prepare me for the business world. I made the decision that my only talent was golf!”

Watson had won four Missouri State Amateur Championships in five years. He had the game, the skill, the heart and the desire. Blessed with powerful arms and hands, strong legs and wide shoulders, he developed a brisk, business-like swing and earned in High School from his football coach Leon Flappan the nickname Huckleberry Dillinger.

The Dillinger evolved from his gangster-like nerve - his putting touch was lethal - and Jim Murray, the legendary Los Angeles Times sportswriter, later wrote: “Once upon a time there was this young golfer who looked as if he had just arrived by raft from the Mississippi River.

“He had this red hair and freckled face and a gap-toothed smile that made him look as if he had just slipped off the pages of Mark Twain. He looked out of place with shoes on. You wanted to sift his pockets for live lizards or balls of string, and ask him where he put his fishing pole. You wanted to ask him if his name was ‘Huckleberry.’”

Pretty soon Murray and the world’s leading sports writers were capturing Watson’s deeds in words. He turned professional, very nearly won in his rookie season in 1972, losing the Quad Cities event by one stroke to Deane Beman, who eventually became US PGA Tour Commissioner. Then, after some frustrating results, two men entered his life and helped transform his career.

First, he took on Bruce Edwards as his caddie in 1973. They formed arguably the most formidable of fairway partnerships, winning titles with a smile and with grace. Sadly, Edwards passed away in 2004 after a courageous battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS).

Then after being the 54-hole leader in the 1974 US Open, faltering only in the final round, Watson was approached by Byron Nelson, who was commentating having retired following an outstanding career, and welcomed the words of encouragement so much so that Nelson would become teacher, mentor and friend.

Watson made the 1974 Western Open his first PGA Tour win and his second, perhaps predictably, came in the Byron Nelson Golf Classic in May, 1975.

Two months later he captured his first Major Championship, holing a 20-foot putt on the last green to tie Australian Jack Newton then winning the 18-hole play-off with a 71 to a 72 in The Open Championship at Carnoustie.

Four of his five Open Championships were won in Scotland and the next in 1977 took him centre stage as for the second time in three months - he had won his first Masters in April - Watson pushed Jack Nicklaus into second place. The “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry in which Watson and Nicklaus went head for head, Watson prevailing by closing 65-65 to Nicklaus’s 65-66, was an epic encounter that captured the imagination of the world and, unquestionably, confirmed his emergence as the game’s dominant player of the time. Watson would win eight Majors - another Masters in 1981 when Nicklaus was second again, The Opens of 1980, 1982 and 1983, and the US Open in 1982 - and in all 39 US PGA Tour titles in addition to six PGA Players of the Year Awards.

Watson, regarded as the finest striker of the golf ball since Nicklaus, also possessed the ability to improvise shots and in that 1982 US Open at Pebble Beach one shot was quite breath-taking - a ‘touchy’ chip from knotted rough for a sensational two and for good measure he birdied the last to once more deny Nicklaus.

Nicklaus showed his respect as they walked off the 18th - “You little son of a gun; you’re something else. That was nice going. I’m really proud of you, and I’m pleased for you.” Watson says: “Playing head to head with Jack was what I dreamed it would be. Was Turnberry in 1977 the most exciting career moment of my life? Yes, with the exception maybe of Pebble Beach.”

Arguably there has not been two better losers in golf. Watson’s reverence for the game blended to his intelligence and imagination are distinctive qualities that set him apart as does his loyalty and his charity work. He has been a long-time supporter of the Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. He co-founded the Bruce Edwards Foundation for ALS to raise funds to find a cure for the debilitating disease that claimed the life of his caddie and friend. He has played an enormous role in Clubs for Kids, the precursor to the First Tee in Kansas City for which Watson is the Chairman of the Advisory Board, and he participated in trips to Iraq to “deliver a little bit of home to the troops.”

Then in the sunset of his career Watson arrived at a potential curtain call. He had told his wife Hilary on the eve of The 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry that he had a good chance of winning. Four days of brilliant play brought him to within one hole of creating a unique piece of history as at the age of 59 he was set to rip-up the record books and in the process equal Harry Vardon’s record of six Opens. The golfing gods, however, decreed otherwise.

Victory would have given Watson the opportunity to ride off into that sunset and retire to his farm on the outskirts of Kansas City. Instead he continued with the day job and in May, 2011, he became at the age of 61 the oldest player to win a Major Championship since the Senior Tour began by winning the Senior PGA Championship for his sixth Senior Major including the three Senior Open Championships (2003, 2005, 2007) he has won in Britain.

Now at the age of 65 years and 22 days on September 26, 2014, he will make history again by becoming the oldest Ryder Cup captain. This is because he is the right man for the job, the last winning American captain (1993) on British soil, an Ambassador to the game he cherishes, a man who commands the respect of all. His most memorable Ryder Cup moment remains the Opening Ceremony at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1977 which he says was “spine-tingling to listen to Captain Dow Finsterwald’s speech introducing the players and to see the flags go up - I had never done that before and it affected me greatly.”

What transpired to take Watson back to Scotland, scene of four of the Open Championship triumphs, to lead the United States on, coincidently, a Jack Nicklaus designed course, can be attributed to the foresight of Ted Bishop, the PGA of America President, and the genius essayist Jim Huber who, sadly, is no longer with us. Bishop had read “Four Days in July,” Huber’s emotive account of Watson’s enthralling challenge for Open glory two months short of his 60th birthday, and decided that this was the man he wanted to lead them in 2014. So “Four Days in July” becomes “Three Days in September” and another special milestone in the life of Tom Watson.

Mitchell Platts