AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tom Watson was always the hard one to love. Arnie was chummier. Jack was more majestic. Gary was more enthusiastic. Lee was funnier. Ben was warmer.
And Tom Watson? Tom was the intense one. The grinder. Lee Trevino remembered seeing him back in the day hitting golf balls out of a bunker on pro-am day. “Who is that kid?” he asked his caddie. When told the name, Trevino shrugged and went about his day. After finishing his round, five hours later, Trevino was walking by the same bunker. Tom Watson was still in it, practicing shots.
Watson didn’t play golf. He worked it. He slaved at it. He was not a phenom like so many of the other greats of the game. Nobody knew his name when he made it to the PGA Tour. He had never won a major amateur tournament. He was not even an All-American at Stanford.
He showed up on the PGA Tour having made only a promise to himself and to his father’s friends who sponsored him: He would work harder than anybody.
He looked like Huck Finn in his younger days – sportswriters could not avoid the comparison – but there was nothing light or mischievous about him. He guarded his privacy. He played as if in a tunnel. He rarely joked. When he blew a few leads early in his career, he readily admitted that he had choked.
“Who is your biggest threat?” reporters asked him in 1977 as he entered the final day of the Masters with the lead.
“Myself,” Watson said.
He buried his emotions. That was at the heart of his greatness. When other golfers withered in the wind or complained about the rain, Watson thrived. When his great rival Jack Nicklaus seemed to have him beat, Watson found something more in himself. He would not let feelings – fear, disgust, rage, jitters – hold him back. Nobody in the history of the game hit more good shots after bad ones. When he found his ball in trouble, he would look at his caddie Bruce Edwards, smile his hard smile, and say, “Watch what I do with this!” Excuses were for losers.
No, Watson has never been too comfortable dealing with earnest emotions. In 2009, when there was an outpouring of love for him after he almost won the Open Championship at age 59 – it would have been the greatest victory in the history of the sport – he had a hard time processing it. He heard fom people from all over the world who said that he had inspired them to feel younger, to believe in the impossible. He was thankful for all those sentiments, but he did not quite know how to process them.
“Didn’t all those letters make you appreciate what you had done?” I asked him once.
“What did I do?” he said. “I lost. That’s all I did.”
That’s Tom Watson – a show-me Missourian who does not deal in the touchy or the feely. Friday, he played his last round of golf at the Masters – his last competitive round of golf with the younger players – and the outpouring of emotion was there. Everyone stood. Everyone applauded. Everyone cheered. Everyone yelled, “Thank you Tom!” It was touching because goodbyes to sports legends are always touching.
Thing is, all the while, Watson was trying desperately to make the cut. Even at the 16th hole, he still had a chance to make it – and that’s where his head was. When he missed the putt there, he started to realize it might not happen. When he missed a birdie putt at 17, he knew then. And so he walked up the 18th fairway for the last time, and what were his emotions?
“I thought, ‘I’m glad I don’t have to play that hole again,’” he said. “’I’m glad I do not have to hit 5-irons and 3-woods out there. I just can’t hit it far enough to compete.’”
Well, surely, those weren’t his only emotions, and he admitted feeling some tears build up as he turned to his caddie and friend Neil Oxman. But it was just that: An admission. To the very end, Watson had a hard time embracing the love. It’s his nature.
I’ve known Tom for 20-plus years. I wrote a book about him. I have followed him round after round, from St. Andrews to Pebble Beach. I have talked with him for countless hours about countless things – fathers, children, politics, journalism, what really matters in life.
And through it all, I never saw the emotions get to him.
“I’m just a golfer,” he began. “I just go out and try my damndest to play the best golf I possibly can every time I’m on the golf course when I’m in competition. It wasn’t a walk at all. I didn’t feel like it was a final walk until the last couple of holes because I still had a shot at it. And that’s just me. That’s just me.
“I feel very …” he said, and he stopped to compose himself. Tears filled his eyes. He sat there for a long time until he felt like he could speak again. “I just feel very blessed that they feel that way about me. I hope that over my career I’ve been able to show the crowd, show them some great golf.”
This is Watson at his rawest. He does not often speak personally. It’s nobody business. Except …
“When I was a kid,” he said, “I was a shy kid. One of the ways I expressed myself was to hit a golf shot.”
Yes. Of course. He was talking to the crowd with those shots. He never felt like he could crack jokes like Trevino or inspire a gallery like Palmer. But he could, at his best, hit great golf shots, the sort that would leave people awed and wondering, “How did he do that?” That was how he showed his love for people. And that’s why, in the end, they loved him back.