Tom Watson and what it takes to go from good to great
Tom Watson was almost always an exceptional golfer. He won the Kansas City Match Play Championship when he was only 15 years old. He was an All-American when attending Stanford University and won four Missouri State Amateur titles. He had the physical ability and brains to be a success in professional golf.
But Tom Watson didn’t burst on the scene like Tiger Woods did and start winning almost immediately. When he turned pro in 1971 his career started slowly. It was a learning process for him. In his second year he had a second place finish and in this third year a couple of third place finishes. What I remember about Tom Watson was that, early in this career, he would start off well and then fade at the end. Winning a tournament was a mental block. In the 1974 US Open, Tom had the 54 hole lead, but faded to a 79 in the final round. He still hadn’t won a regular PGA tournament and there was written comment that he didn’t have what it took to be a winner. His collapses were mounting up, but he didn’t become disheartened. He learned from the experiences and those setbacks fueled his future success.
Tom was introduced to the game by his father Ray a scratch golfer himself. He came under the tutelage of PGA professional Tom Thirsk, a fine player in his own right, who refined his swing and taught young Tom how to think and play the game the right way. Byron Nelson offered valuable advice about dealing with pressure. Golf success is a series of building blocks and each block should be understood and something learned from each step. Tom learned from failure, just like Thomas Edison learned from each failed attempt to perfect the light bulb.
Tom won the Western Open later in 1974 beating a fading Tom Weiskoff with a fine finishing 69 to win by 2 shots. When you win your mindset changes. Success breeds success. Some players don’t learn from their first win and don’t build on it. For Tom it was a springboard for future success. So when he had an opportunity to close the deal the next year at the British Open, he knew what to do and won.
The knowing how to win and the conditions and mindset that is required to accomplish the task is learned. Theorize all you want, but you need to be in the heat of battle to fully appreciate the feeling and the concentration. Watson has a unique habit of challenging himself. In the 1982 US Open at Pebble Beach, Tom was faced with a very difficult shot out of heavy rough on the 17th hole. A certain bogie was imminent and the television commentators predicted gloom. Watson's caddie, Bruce Edwards, said to Tom, "Get it close." To which Watson replied, "I'm not going to get it close, I'm going to make it!" Of course Tom did make that shot and golf history has one of its greatest moments.
When asked what his mindset is after a poor round, Tom has replied that, “I got my bad round out of the way, so tomorrow will be a great round.” When asked about his mindset after a good round his reply is, “I’m playing really good; I should play even better tomorrow.” Another example of the Tom Watson inspiring himself is that he will frequently say to his caddy when faced with a challenging shot, “You’re going to love this, watch this one.” What made the 1977 British Open Championship a classic was that Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson played to their full ability and held nothing back. Each responded to each other’s great shot with one of their own. They were in a different world from the rest of the field. Lee Trevino finished a distance third a full 12 shots back of the winner, Tom Watson.
To this day, I am so disappointed that Tom did not win the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry in Scotland. Stuart Cink made a 15 foot birdie putt in the group ahead of Watson to force Tom to par the last hole to win the championship. The difficultly of the last hole is the tee shot, and Tom was straight and true. His 8 iron was conservative and landed on line about 40 feet short of the pin. Other shots landing around that spot checked right there or rolled 10 or 20 feet, but this one must have hit a hard spot and rolled off the back of the green leaving Tom a difficult pitch shot. A decent pitch, but poor putt left him tied and he lost in the ensuing play-off. Tom handled it like a champion, congratulating the winner and explaining that’s the nature of golf. But I wonder if it grinds on him, because 99 out of 100 shots would have stopped on the green and he would’ve been the oldest major champion in history at age 59. What a story that would’ve been.
Success in golf is learned in stages. Learn from each round or shot and challenge yourself like Tom Watson. Don’t settle for OK, but open yourself for your best shot. Try the Watson challenge that he does occasionally for himself. Say to yourself when you are a little nervous or hesitant over a difficult shot, “Ok, you’re going to love this, watch this!”