Question & Answer with Tom Watson
About Tom Watson
Pebble Beach was the perfect setting for an interview with hall-of-fame golfer Tom Watson. Almost 25 years removed from his U.S. Open triumph over Jack Nicklaus, the 57-year-old looked at home in Northern California.
From the mid ‘70s through the early ‘80s, Watson was the gold standard of golf. Refusing to play second fiddle to Nicklaus, the short game wizard evolved into one of the Golden Bear’s greatest challengers and arguably the best champion the British Open has ever seen.
The Kansas resident rekindled some of his magic by tying for 19th in February at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am (first top-20 finish on tour since 2003) along with a second-place finish in the pro-am team competition with son Michael.
With family in tow, it wasn’t all business during Watson’s visit to the Peninsula. The understated Midwesterner took time to reminisce about his days at Stanford, take pictures of his son playing Pebble Beach and discuss his “good timing” that led to one of the most storied careers in the history of the game. -Hilary Howard
You were a psychology major and in a fraternity at Stanford. Did you have a fairly normal college experience despite the golf demands?
We went to college during the Vietnam War and all the turmoil. College at that time wasn’t very smooth with all the issues that were going on — the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War. It was a turbulent time. There were some wonderful times and some trying times in those college years.
What were your expectations when you turned professional?
All I had was a dream. My dream was to play professional golf as a winner. When I first started, I understood that there were a series of steps that I had to take to learn how to win. It took me a while to learn how to do that. One of the things I did a lot of was practice, probably more than just about anybody out here.
Talk about the importance of Byron Nelson to your development.
Byron was a great friend. He was a mentor, father figure if you will in certain respects and a very close personal friend in other respects. The relationship was a two-way street. One of the things he showed me was how to be a person who looks at life as a glass half-full; to understand that life is too short to go through with any animosity. I think that is one of the best lessons I learned from Byron.
How important is Pebble Beach to you?
My dreams really came true right here at Pebble Beach. Any kid who wants to become a professional dreams about playing against the best. Back in those days, I wanted to play against Jack Nicklaus and beat him. And as a student at Stanford, I had the opportunity to come down and play Pebble Beach, probably about a dozen times during my four years. I always played a little game with myself the last four holes here at Pebble Beach. I got to the 15th tee and I’d say, “All right I’ve got to par in to win the U.S. Open against Jack Nicklaus.” In 1982, that happened.
Describe the chip-in on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach.
Well the chip-in was lucky. People watch sports to see moments like that happen. When it went in it took me from a bad position to a good position. I had a chance to win the tournament I wanted to win the most – our national open. I birdied the last hole to win by two, but that gave me the cushion to go to the last hole with the knowledge that if I made par, I’d win.
Was that chip-in really lucky?
Let me put it this way. Any time you chip it from off the green there is an element of luck. It bounced the right way. On the other hand, I hit it exactly the way I wanted to………broke Jack’s heart.
When you play that hole now, do you still think about that chip?
I think about it because other people always talk about it. I was out there with my son during a practice round at the AT&T. He wanted to see where I chipped it in from and take some pictures. I took pictures of him trying the shot. I’m pretty happy being here playing with my son and showing him Pebble Beach and specifically, the places where I hit the ball.
What do you remember most about the weekend of your duel with Jack Nicklaus at the 1977 British Open?
That weekend was a weekend of warmth. It was a hot Scottish sun. There was a bunch of sunburned Scots out there following us around. A lot of dust — the golf course was dry, not very much rough. But it was a challenge. It ended up that what we did was something very special to my career. To have beaten the best when he was playing nearly his best —it was one of things I had dreamt about.
What was it about the British Open that brought out the best in your game?
Editor’s note: Watson won five British Opens from 1975-83.
I think a lot of it had to do with timing. Life is all about timing. I was usually playing pretty well when I played the British Open. I always had the ability to hit the ball the right distance. It’s harder to hit the ball the right distances on links courses. That was one of my strengths. I hit the ball pretty solidly when I was on and I could control the ball that way.
Are you going back to Carnoustie in July to compete in the Open Championship?
I’m not; my daughter is getting married on the July 21. I’m going to walk her down the aisle on that Saturday of the Open Championship weekend. I will be thinking maybe a little bit about it. I won’t tell her that, though.
Which do you think was your better shot, the chip-in or the 7-iron on the 72nd hole at Turnberry?
They both meant winning a championship. I still had some work left to do after both of them. I had to par the 18th at Pebble and I had to make that 2 ½ -foot putt after Jack made the 40-footer to put pressure on me at Turnberry.
Were you aware of Nicklaus’ predicament on the approach shot at Turnberry?
Very much so. I went over and looked at his lie for his approach and he had a terrible lie. He was going to be very fortunate just to get the ball on the green. But as Jack could do, he could pull the great shots out when he needed to. There must have been a ½ – yard of sod that came out with that swing. It was an amazing shot.
Nicklaus finished runner-up in four of your eight majors. Describe your relationship with him.
Jack and I are good friends. We’ve gotten to know each other over the years and have become close friends. It’s always good to be with him and Barbara. Barbara is a wonderful woman and she keeps Jack in line.
How would you compare Jack in his prime versus Tiger?
Well, I think Tiger is probably better than Jack at this point. Jack dominated the game but not to the extent that Tiger has. You have to give the nod to Tiger at this point.
Talk about your former caddie, Bruce Edwards.
Bruce was in the parking lot in St. Louis in 1973 and I was looking for a caddie and he was looking for a job. That’s how we hooked up. He asked me for the job and I said, “All right.” We finished sixth that week and he asked to caddie for me the rest of the year. I said, “Let’s just try it week-by-week and see what happens.” He caddied for me for more than 30 years.
How special was the 2003 U.S. Open with him on the bag?
He contracted ALS in 2002 and caddied for me until the fall of 2003. During that time, I played in the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields in Chicago. I had a magical first round and shot 65 for the first-round lead. It was time to make Bruce’s illness known to the world. It was time for us to ask for help.
How important is your work for ALS?
It’s still very tough to tell people when they contract the disease that there’s no cure and there’s nothing we can do right now to slow down the disease. One of these days we’ll have it – something to slow it down. Maybe a combination of drugs – maybe the human genome project which was just completed in December where they identified 53 gene-dependant deficiencies in ALS patients.
What do you think of the FedEx Cup?
I think it’s wonderful for the pros and hope that it remains the same for the Tour in making the season shorter. One of the things the Tour needs to realize is that the sponsors need the players to play in their tournaments. If you have too many tournaments not all the best players are going to play. Some tournaments are going to have weaker fields. That has always been an issue. I hope that the FedEx Cup and the points’ race will alleviate some of it.
With square drivers and other technological advances, do you think the art of working the ball has been lost?
Well the golf ball doesn’t curve much so the art is lost but you still have to make the ball move. You have to know how to make it move and trust it to move.
Why do you think you were successful as a Ryder Cup captain?
I got lucky. It was just luck. The Ryder Cup captain doesn’t do anything. He just chooses the teams. It’s not the captain who wins the matches; it’s the players on the teams.
Talk about your involvement with the design of Spanish Bay.
Well that was a wonderful start. That was the first golf course I was involved with as a designer with Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and Sandy Tatum. I learned a lot because it was brand new to me, but I always had the desire to draw and to design golf holes ever since I was in the fourth grade.
What advice would you give to amateurs to improve their short game?
Be on your left (front) foot as you hit the ball.
How do you feel about your game now?
After watching the kids hit it on the practice range I feel…what’s the right term, insufficient. These kids hit the ball so far it’s unbelievable. Of course it really does help to hit the ball high and far on these golf courses, especially at Poppy Hills and Spyglass.
You once said, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.” Can you explain that?
If you fail and you don’t want to immediately find out why you failed, you’re probably never going to be a success. Failure breeds success in the right type of personalities. They did a survey of the top 500 Fortune 500 CEOs, I think it was 15-20 years ago, and one of most memorable experiences that these CEOs had was that the majority of them were cut from a team. They were told they weren’t good enough. That’s a failure. But they proved that they could be good enough in other ways. Failure is a great instigator for success.