If they’re looking for an image to put next to the word “Class” in Webster’s Dictionary, they could do no better than to put a picture of Tom Watson next to the text.
The Hall of Famer is one of the true sportsman of the game, a extraordinarily proficient player who has won the admiration of his peers and fans alike by his determination to succeed on the golf course and the way he carries himself off it.
New England fans will get a treat when Watson makes his first appearance at the Bank of America Championship Champions Tour event at Nashawtuc Country Club in Concord, Mass. June 18-24.
“I’m really looking forward to playing at the Bank of America tournament,” said the 57-year-old, who won eight Majors, 39 PGA Tour titles, and 17 Senior or Champions Tour events. “I’ve heard good things about the course and its old style narrow fairways and small greens. I haven’t met a single pro who has played there say anything bad about it. It fit into my schedule this year and I decided to finally play in the event.”
While not competing in as many Champions Tour events as, say Rhode Island’s Dana Quigley, who believes it is a sin to not play in a tournament if one is being held that week, Watson has enjoyed his time on the tour for the over-50 crowd. In fact, he won the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am earlier this year and has won four Champions Tour Majors since becoming eligible in 1999.
“I love the Champions Tour,” said Watson, who was ready to take part in a local tournament in Kansas City to raise money for the First Tee program when we chatted. “Every year it has something special because there are always new players and big names coming out. Fans wonder if the new guys are going to be able to run the table or are the old stalwarts going to hold them off. We’ve got (Bernhard) Langer and Freddie (Couples) scheduled to join soon and that will excite a lot of fans.”
On eligibility changes that made it a bit more difficult for non-PGA Tour players to get onto the Champions Tour, Watson said, “They now have Monday qualifying, which I really wasn’t a fan of. I preferred the old qualifying school method where you had one shot to get your card. I think having guys like Larry Lorretti, Tom Wargo, Jim Albus and Allan Doyle, who didn’t do well or got off the regular tour, qualify and then play out here all the time makes for good stories. Fans can identify with players like that who got a second chance and made the most out of it.”
Watson, who resides with his wife, two children and three stepchildren in Stillwell, Kansas, knows something about playing well at an advanced age. He posted his final PGA Tour win at the 1998 MasterCard Colonial at the age of 48 and continues to play steady golf well as he approaches 60.
“Seeing guys like Fred Funk, Craig Stadler and Bernhard Langer play well and in some cases win on the PGA Tour at 50 or beyond shows that golf is a game that you can play for a long time. You can keep playing and playing well if you keep yourself in shape and maintain your flexibility.”
He added, “I’ve been pretty lucky with injuries. I’ve got one bad hip that I will have to have worked on at some point. But anything you do a million times, like hitting a golf ball, is going to cause some problems with your body.”
One of Watson’s finest moments in recent years came at the 2003 U.S. Open when, at the age of 54, he shot an opening round 65 with his longtime caddy Bruce Edwards carrying his clubs. Watson and Edwards’ friendship and Edwards’ losing battle for Lou Gehrig’s Disease was poignantly chronicled in John Feinstein’s book, “Caddy for Life.” Watson provided moral and financial assistance to Edwards, and has lent his name and presence to numerous other charitable causes though the years.
In 1987, Watson received the Bob Jones Award, the highest honor given by the United States Golf Association in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1988.
When he isn’t playing or enjoying his family, Watson keeps busy designing golf courses.
“We’re finishing up a new course called Tesoro down in Port Saint Lucie, Fla. and we’ll have everything ready for play by the middle of the fall. I’ve got a couple of other opportunities in Oregon and in Ireland that we will be pursuing.”
He added, “I enjoy course design because I’m a very detail oriented person. I enjoy getting in and seeing the lay of the land. I try and make my courses pleasing to the eye and also playable for the average golfer. Most new courses these days are tied into real estate so you have to learn how to work with the developer or owner. And everything is a give and take as to what a good hole is and should be and where it will be located on the property.”
Watson listed the Old Course at Ballybunion, Ireland as perhaps his favorite design.
“I’ve always loved Pebble Beach from my college days playing there, and winning the U.S. Open there was the crème de la crème for me. I enjoy Harbor Town in Hilton Head, Pine Valley, Winged Foot and I’ve had good success at Oakmont, the site of this year’s U.S. Open, but I’ve never won there.”
The tournament Watson was playing in when we chatted was something he and others cooked up to determine the best golfer in Kansas City.
“We are raising money for the First Tee program in Kansas City, which serves over 2,000 kids a year. We’re establishing a scholarship fund for kids who go through program. We’ve got 48 of the best players in the city here and we’re going to find out who the best is.”
When I said that we already know who the best golfer in Kansas City is, Watson laughed and replied, “We’ll, this broken down 57-year-old is going to give it a shot.”
Nobody was betting against Tom Watson that day.