Tom Watson won five Open Championships in his illustrious career, but his success in The Open was not overnight gratification. Instead, however, Watson’s five triumphs were the product of a long journey in the discovery of links golf, and an education in winning.
As Tom Watson rolled in his final putt during The Open Championship in 1977, the man from Missouri was achieving not only the second of his eventual five Claret Jugs.
Rather, with a one shot victory over “the villain” Jack Nicklaus, Watson was vindicating an important struggle in his career, and beginning anew a symbolic relationship with The Open Championship, a relationship that few other golfers have ever shared.
Growing up in Kansas City in the 1950s and 60s, Watson was always a competitive child. Playing with his brothers in various activities, Watson said his competitiveness was shaped by trying to beat his siblings, particularly his eldest brother Rich.
“Rich was three years older, and stronger, faster, bigger. Everything was kind of predicated on competing against my older brother, and competing against his friends and my contemporaries as well. My (competitive nature) all came from that.”
Watson played baseball, but after being cut from his local team, he decided to take up the game of golf at nine-years-of-age.
“So I didn’t play baseball that summer, I played golf,” Watson said. “We’d play on Mondays at various courses which were closed and I had the opportunity to play in competition as a nine-year-old and I really liked that. That’s what started me out in the game.”
Watson, who has loved nature since his youngest days and who thrives in competition, found golf to be a perfect game for his disposition, despite his home state’s cold weather months.
“Playing golf in Kansas City has always been somewhat of a challenge,” Watson said, “but we get enough temperate days in the winter so that I could play golf with some of my crazy friends here. We’d go out and play when it’s in the 20s (Fahrenheit), the greens are frozen.
“I’ve always loved the outdoors. I like to hunt quail and ducks and yeah, I always knew how to dress for that so dressing for playing golf was no big deal. You just go out, get your hands warm and your head warm and you played.”
With a passion for the game, Watson quickly progressed to playing men’s competition having only just become a teenager.
“I played in junior tournaments until I was about 13,” Watson said, “and my Dad said ‘why don’t you try to qualify for the men’s medal play’?
“’OK,’ I said, and I went and played in it and I shot 81. I remember crying up the 18th fairway and a man by the name of Hogan put his arm around my shoulder and said “you’re a good player, Tom, don’t worry about it. There will be better days.’
“I remember that, coming up the last hole crying, because I’d played so badly. Then at 14, I played in the Kansas City men’s match play and I won it.
“And it gave me dreams. That one tournament after winning that, at age 14, gave me dreams.”
Watson dreamed of being a professional golfer as a teenager, and after having success in collegiate golf, he turned professional. It was not a straight-forward decision for the American however, and he wasn’t sure if he belonged on Tour in his first season.
“Early on in my career I didn’t know how I was going to play,” Watson said. “I got in contention a number of times and choked it away, but each one of those failures seemed like it spurred on a success shortly afterwards.”
Watson was initially worried about making cuts, but soon became consumed by the desire to win, and learning what was required to achieve such a result.
“I think the best way I can describe what happened through those losses is that I learned to win by hating failure, by hating to lose.
“When I turned pro I asked (fellow pros), what’s the one thing I need to do when I get out on the Tour? Every one of them said the same thing. They all said ‘Tom, you play and watch the best players out here. You watch what they do. You play with them. You study them’.
“So that’s what I did. I studied Jack Nicklaus, (Lee) Trevino, (Arnold) Palmer, (Tom) Weiskopf. My formative years in golf were basically based on learning from other people, people whom I respected, who understood and played the game and played with a passion for the game. My learning process of how to win was by watching other players play.”
Watson’s most important lesson in his early career days, was taught to him by Nicklaus in the final round of the 1974 Hawaiian Open.
“I kept on putting myself in positions to win and I kept on observing the players who did win, what did they do? I quickly lost the idea that I had to play perfect golf to win.
“The most important one that I go back to a lot is playing with Jack Nicklaus at the Hawaiian Open when he had the lead during the last round. He hit the ball terribly, through the entire round, and he stayed in the lead, got in the lead by one shot coming into the 17th hole.
“It’s a par three. The flag’s on the back of the green, deep bunkers in the back and to the sides, and he hits a shot and it comes up short on the green and it’s 60 feet short.”
“I walk off the tee, and I said: ‘Jack, what did you hit?’ He said: ‘I hit 6-iron’. I said: ‘I had a 5-iron, why didn’t you hit 5-iron?’ He said: ‘I couldn’t lose the tournament hitting a 6-iron’. Bingo!
“He two putted from 60 feet, he wins the tournament. I get it now, it’s not being a hero that wins you golf tournaments, it’s playing the smartest golf that wins the golf tournament. You could win not playing your best, that was the key I learned from Jack.”
Watson proved a quick study. He picked up his first Tour victory at the 1974 Western Open later that year, beating Weiskopf to the title, and won in 1975 at the Byron Nelson Classic, just two months before playing in his first Open Championship later that summer.
Heading into The 104th Open Championship at Carnoustie in 1975, Watson was playing great golf, and now had the mental key to victory in his back pocket.
He did not, however, have much experience with links golf, and while he would become one of its greatest proponents in the modern era, he certainly didn’t have any admiration for links golf during the week of The Open in 1975.
As Carnoustie was closed to exempt players on the Sunday prior to The Open, Watson went to Monifieth Golf Club with two major champions to be in John Mahaffey and Hubert Green. Watson’s first tee shot, famously, was one that left a less than pleasant lasting impression for the 25-year-old.
“As I hadn’t played a links anywhere in my life,” Watson said, “it was something that I wanted to get a feel for. So we ended up playing a round at Monifieth Golf Club, which is right down the road from Carnoustie.”
“And I hit my tee ball on the first hole right down the middle of the fairway, as did Hubert and John. We found John and Hubert’s balls, but didn’t find mine, nowhere to be found.
“We looked for the ball, looked for the ball. We looked for a long time, and didn’t find it so I just dropped one where I thought the ball should be and hit it.
“Walking up to the green I said 'one more look way over here to the left, it can’t be over there’. And of course it was, it had hit the side slope at a 45 degree angle, cannoned into a small pot bunker, and that was my first shot in links golf.
“It left a pretty sour taste in my mouth, to be honest with you. I didn’t like that. Here’s a perfect shot down the middle and it ends up in a pot bunker 80 yards off-line. And so I carried that dislike for the game of golf, the way links golf was played, for quite a number of years.”
What Watson had no distaste for in the slightest, however, was winning. And while the man from Kansas City may not have loved the style of golf he was playing, it suited his game perfectly in 1975.
“As Trevino said: ‘I see this golf course, I look at Watson’s game, this golf course doesn’t have any rough and this is right up Watson’s alley.’ I didn’t hit the ball the straightest, but I could really putt and hit the ball high, hold a bunch of the greens that maybe some of the other guys couldn’t hold if they were going in there a little bit lower,” he explained.
With his prodigious length, high shot trajectory and superb putting, Watson was able to shoot two rounds in the 60s before the final round, sitting at nine under par and just three shots behind the lead.
“So for three rounds I was right there. I was three shots behind going into the last round and everybody was in the tournament, Miller, Nicklaus, Jack Newton. Bobby Cole had the lead. You know there were a lot of names, boom, right in there.”
Before teeing off in round four, Watson spoke with the legendary Byron Nelson, the man whose tournament he had won just two months earlier, and asked him for advice before the final round of his first Open Championship.
“I said: ‘Byron, you have any advice for me today?’ He said: ‘Yes, I do. Ttoday if you shoot a round of even par, you’ll be right there at the end,’ and his prophecy came true.”
Watson, who had been studying the likes of Nicklaus and Trevino in his education in winning, had his lessons reaffirmed by one of golf’s great winners. By playing smart golf, Watson would keep himself in the championship, and would have a chance to put his training into practice on the 72nd hole.
"That was the first time I had a putt to actually have a chance to be in a play-off,” Watson said. “That was the first time I put myself in that position. At the Western Open I had the luxury of two-putting and again at the Byron Nelson I had the luxury of two-putting the last hole, but this was a putt I had to make to even consider winning the tournament, from about 15 feet.
“I’ve got to make this putt, and I hit the putt just the way I wanted to and it kind of did a victory lap and went right back in. I knew I had to make it and I made it, and yeah, that was a success. That was a success.”
Watson gave a huge fist pump after holing his putt, as with a level-par final round, the 25-year-old had given himself a chance to “build on his success” in an 18-hole play-off the next day against Newton.
“Jack Newton was an up and coming star from Australia,” Watson said. “A rough and tough guy and darn good player. The play-off was nip and tuck the whole way.”
After an incredibly tight day’s play, again with Watson showing steely resilience, the American edged out Newton after the Australian missed a putt to tie on the 18th hole.
“We were going to go extra holes after that if he made his putt, but he missed it, and in an instant I was Open Champion. The first time I’d played in the tournament but Open Champion it was, and it was a joyous experience. It began a long wonderful road of Open Championship golf for me.”
After past disappointments in majors in his career, the young Watson had won in his first ever Open Championship, a victory where he had become a hero, by not trying to be one. For Watson, however, this was far from his reality.
“In my own mind I was still learning how to win and by winning that tournament the way I did, I certainly didn’t think I had arrived, that I was a hero of any kind.
“It was my goal to be the best player in the game and that was a stepping point to get there.”
In 1977, Watson arrived at The 106th Open Championship at Turnberry in the midst of the best season of his career so far. The Kansas City native had won four times that year already, including beating Jack Nicklaus to a Green Jacket at The Masters in April.
Watson had won brilliantly in The Open two years prior on a course that suited his style of play, but he returned in 1977 a much better player by his own admission, particularly in finding fairways.
“My strengths were that I could hit the ball a very long way,” Watson said. “I was one of the longest hitters on the tour. My putting was exceptional, I made everything. My chipping was very good, and the height at which I could hit the ball was really good. My weaknesses, I was an average bunker player and I didn’t know where I was going. I really missed the ball to the right a lot, and a long way to the right sometimes.
“My accuracy was a weakness, but I solved that in the end of 1976 and really hit the ball beautifully for a number of years after that. I made a swing change, one of those moments where the light switch went on. That swing change really made it easy for me to hit just a slight fade, and I drove the ball beautifully, beautiful iron shots. That’s when my game really turned around.
“I had some really good moments with my swing in 1977, that first year after I made the change. I was really firing on all cylinders, and I was going through one of the best stretches of golf in my career. Without a doubt I was playing my best.”
Now a seven-time PGA Tour winner, and a two-time Major Champion just a few years into his career, Watson was in top form. He would need to be, as he squared off against the man who taught him the secret of winning in Hawaii three years prior.
Watson had beaten Nicklaus once already in a major that year at Augusta, but as evidenced in 1975, accomplishing something once was not enough for Watson. He needed to do it again.
“I went into Turnberry not knowing anything about the golf course but feeling as if once I got to know the course, which I did in three practice rounds, I would have a pretty darn good chance to win that golf tournament. Rarely in my career did I ever feel that way about my chances.
“The Open at Turnberry, it boiled down to the last two rounds and I played with Jack. It was always the point, if you looked up at that leaderboard, you were only looking for one name, and that was Jack Nicklaus. He was the guy you had to beat, in any tournament you played in.”
“I was never intimidated by Jack. I had the greatest respect for Jack, and our relationship was growing. I watched Jack like a hawk to find out how he’d won, what he did to win, but I wanted to beat the bastard!
“That’s what you do, you look at your competitor, the person you’re trying to beat and you try to find out how they do it better than you and you try to do it better yourself, and then when you get to head to head with them, as we did at Turnberry, you’ve paid your dues and you’ve practised hard and you get there and now it’s time to perform. It was quite a match.”
And how the two men performed. In what would go down as one golf’s greatest golfing battles, Watson and Nicklaus traded blows all day, and when Watson birdied the 15th hole to tie with Nicklaus, the question was who would blink first?
The answer? Nicklaus.
“I made that long putt at 15 from off the green,” Watson said, “to draw back to even with Jack. Jack was always up, always up, and then even. Then on 17, he had a hiccup. He missed a short putt for a birdie, and that gave me a one-shot lead going into the last hole.”
The 72nd hole produced one of The Open Championship’s great occasions, as after a beautiful approach from Watson, Nicklaus famously rolled in a 40-foot birdie putt to make his counterpart hole out for victory from three feet.
“I step up and I make it. And what he said to me coming off the green, ‘Tom, I gave you my best shot but it wasn’t good enough, congratulations.’ When he said that, you know he gave me a belief that I can beat the best in the game.
“I won at The Masters to beat him by two but that was just once. This was the confirmation that I could beat him twice and that really gave me for the first time in my life, in my career, the total belief that I could play and beat the best.”
While Watson had won two Open Championships on two of the world’s finest links courses, the man from Missouri still hadn’t grown to love links golf as many would expect from a Champion Golfer.
Preceding what would be Watson’s best run at The Open in the early 1980s, however, the American began to appreciate, and fall in love with, golf’s purest form.
“I finally kind of changed my opinion (at The Open) in 1979 with a kind of an a-ha moment,” Watson said. “I wasn’t playing particularly well, but I finally kind of understood what the game was, how you had to play the game over there.
“The playing of the game is different. You have to get the ball flag high. That’s your ultimate challenge. How do you get the ball flag high? You have to learn how to manage the distance and that’s the ultimate test in links for me.
“And so it kind of went back to my childhood. When I was playing as a child, you couldn’t hit the ball far enough to land it on the green and stop it. You had to run the ball on the greens.”
“I said: ‘Well, what’s so different now when you’re a big boy playing the game, you have to run the balls on the greens just like when you were a kid. Get with it, son!’ And so my attitude changed and I really sort of started to fall in love with it at Ballybunion and Troon and Prestwick and Royal Dornoch.
“The anatomy of the ultimate links golfer is one who can accept the bad bounces with the good bounces because they’re going to even out at times.”
With a greater understanding and love of links, a superb golf game and a now ingrained confidence in his knowledge of winning, Watson would prove almost unbeatable at Open Championships in the early 1980s. He had learned how to play links golf, and to win Opens, like no other contemporary player.
Prior to The 109th Open in 1980 at Muirfield, Watson was again playing golf of a different world, and had picked up 10 wins on the PGA Tour in the previous 15 months. While he had won in 1975 at Carnoustie with his accuracy as a weakness, in 1980 it became a strength.
“In 1980 at Muirfield I was playing awfully well. That was a year I probably played my most consistent golf, and at Muirfield, I figured I could win the tournament if I did one thing, stay out of the bunkers.
“That was my game plan and I only got in one cross bunker the whole tournament. The reason I wanted to stay out of the bunkers was because I was putting the best I’ve probably ever putted in my life. I made everything. It went in from everywhere and I won by four.”
Aged 30, Watson won his third Open Championship at Muirfield in 1980, and by the time he teed it up for The 111th Open at Royal Troon, a course that had helped spark his love of links golf, the American had won another Green Jacket and, crucially, a U.S. Open title at Pebble Beach that had previously, and painfully, eluded him.
Victory in 1982 at Royal Troon followed in due course, as Watson held on to a one-shot lead entering the final round to claim the Claret Jug by a single stroke.
However, Watson, who had won 28 tournaments on the PGA Tour in just the previous five years, did not win again for another 364 days. The prize was a successful defence at The Open in 1983 amid a packed leaderboard. Having once described Nicklaus’ name as the one name to look for on leaderboards, that mantle had now been passed to Watson at The Open.
A fifth Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale in The 112th Open Championship ensured that at the age of just 34, Watson’s place in history was assured as one of the greatest Open Championship players of all time.
Yet despite Watson’s incredible triumphs, wins he learned how to achieve through a long education in how to win, it is two of his defeats at The Open, 25 years apart, that are just as famed as his victories.
In 1984, Watson had shown a resurgence on the PGA Tour, and had just won his third event of the season prior to The 113th Open at St Andrews.
Watson was in the final group on the Sunday, and battled with Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer as he attempted to match Harry Vardon for the most Open Championships. Coming up the 71st hole, Watson was tied for the lead.
“I went into the 17th hole tied with Seve but I played a shot from the upslope of the fairway there. I was trying to land the ball on the green with a long two iron and I pushed it way off to the right. It was a lousy shot.”
Watson ended up against the wall on the Road Hall and bogeyed, as Ballesteros birdied the 18th to spark a famous celebration and victory. Watson’s attitude in defeat, however, was that of a true winner, and a true links champion.
“So as it boils down to in all golf tournaments, the lowest score wins and you kick yourself when you have missed opportunities. But you temper that with the really extraordinary things that you do, making long putts, chipping in and things like that so you have to temper that.”
After the 1984 Open Championship, however, Watson lost his swing and his game. Without a golf game he could control, his winning mentality counted for much less.
“You tinker with your swing a little bit, you may go a different direction and by 1984 I was struggling some with my swing. I still was competing well, won a tournament or two, but by 1985 I started to really struggle. During that stretch of time from 1985 to 1994 I won one tournament and the game to say the least was difficult. I hated the game at times. The game was no fun.
“Heading the ball off to the right was kind of the old Achilles heel that I had with my swing, that I changed in 1994. I wish I had understood the swing like I did in 1994, back in 1984, and been able to play that shot (on 17) differently.”
From his St Andrews disappointment, Watson would win just one more tournament on the PGA Tour in the next 10 years, and card just two top-10 finishes at golf’s original major in that time.
A quarter of a century on from his disappointment at St Andrews, however, Watson turned up to The 138th Open Championship at Turnberry in 2009 playing great golf on the Seniors' Tour, after fixing his swing for good over a decade earlier. At 59, Watson was daring to dream the impossible.
“I was playing my best, I was putting well and I told my wife going to bed that night, ‘I can win this golf tournament. I can win it. Not just make the cut, I can win it.’”
Watson’s performance at Turnberry was historic, and on the 72nd hole, he found himself needing just a par to win his sixth Open Championship in true fairytale fashion. Just like he did 32 years earlier on the same hole against Nicklaus, from the middle of the fairway, he hit the approach shot he wanted.
“I hit a perfect shot in 2009 at Turnberry on the last hole. Pushed maybe a little bit more by a gust of wind and it just trickled over. I could have done my part to get the ball up and down to win by a shot but I didn’t. But you have to deal with those. You have to deal with those.”
Watson ended up losing in a play-off to Stewart Cink, but he doesn’t regret the second shot he played, and treats the result like a true links champion.
“It was a bad bounce,” Watson said. “I had a great bounce in the final round at Muirfield in 1980 on the first hole. I pushed an iron out of the left rough way off to the right, it hit the side slope of one of the bunkers and bounded onto the green. You have to deal with the lucky and unlucky bounces you get.”
Watson had learned to appreciate that better than almost any other, and had learned how to use that to his advantage to win. While a bad bounce cost Watson, and the world, one of sport’s greatest ever stories in 2009, it did nothing to take away from a lifetime of exceptional performance from Watson.
After the final round, a call from his former foe and now good friend, Jack Nicklaus, solidified Watson’s entire education of winning in his mind from the man he learnt the most.
“Jack said: 'You got off to a little shaky start, but you got in there and you hit a perfect drive on the last hole and then you hit a perfect second shot. Six inches shorter and you two-putt, you win the tournament’.
“Then he said something that really took a little bit of the pit out of the hole in my stomach. He said: ‘You played the right shot on your third shot, you gave yourself a chance to win by putting the ball rather than chipping the ball.’ And that was a relief to hear that.”
It is 45 years since Watson first played, and won, an Open Championship. In that time, Watson has become an adopted son of Scotland, winning four times in the country, and is beloved wherever he goes as The Open’s greatest modern champion.
“I think the Scottish people have a certain affection for me as their champion. I won four times in Scotland and that special affection has changed my life.
“Scottish people have a special inside the curtain type of understanding of the game, what it takes to play the game, and what it takes to be a champion.”
As a five-time Champion Golfer from Kansas City, Missouri, who didn’t love links golf until his third triumph, Watson’s ability to excel in the “truest test” of a golfer’s game, and his ability to be a champion on links courses, is perhaps unrivalled in the modern day.
Watson’s love of links golf, and his knowledge of how to be a champion, did not come overnight. His long education in victory, however, helped him produce play that has inspired golfers all around the globe, and ensured that the name of Tom Watson will be linked with The Open Championship, forever.