No doubt the best birthday present for Tom Watson, who turns 65 today, would be a belated one: a Ryder Cup victory later this month by his United States team, which hasn’t won in Europe since 1993, his previous turn as American captain. Watson announced his three captain’s selections Tuesday evening and unveiled the team uniforms Wednesday morning — both on television, which scarcely had an interest in golf when anyone outside of Kansas City first heard of Tom Watson more than four decades ago.
The picks were scrutinized more than the threads, or at least one of them: Webb Simpson, the 2012 U.S. Open champion who was all but absent in the major championships this season. Chris Kirk’s Deutsche Bank victory was too little and too late for a captain who already had three Ryder Cup rookies on his team along with the singular Bubba Watson, a Simpson pal and partner at the 2012 Ryder Cup.
In the long view of Watson, the fabric of his squad or its clothing will mean about as much as a practice round in January to a golfer’s chances at the Masters in April. The fact that Watson is still a public golf figure, not someone merely hitting balls on the back forty of his farm as he becomes eligible for Medicare, encourages an appraisal of how he got there.
Despite eight major titles among his 39 PGA Tour victories, Watson isn’t in the conversation as best golfer ever. Thanks to his grit and extraordinary competitive longevity, though, he loiters in the frog hair with the right to be justifiably proud that he was the best of his time, a juncture when he took the baton from Jack Nicklaus like a sprinter hungry to win a high-stakes race against the fastest man in town.
When Watson turned back Nicklaus in 1977, first in the Masters then a few months later in their epic showdown in the British Open at Turnberry, he defeated a longtime star still fit, focused and in no mood to be dislodged from his long reign atop the sport. With his improbable chip-in on No. 17 in the final round at Pebble Beach in 1982, a delicate shot that delivered an forceful upper-cut of disappointment to Nicklaus, who could taste his record fifth U.S. Open, Watson reiterated what he was all about. And he led the PGA Tour money list five times when the feat was still a true currency of achievement.
The clutch golf Watson played against the game’s 20th century standard of excellence to make his name will still be recalled some far-off date from now as among the finest ever. One fringe benefit of his role as U.S. Ryder Cup captain is that younger people will get a tangential reminder that the Midwesterner with the deep creases on his face and a walkie-talkie in his hand was as tough as they come when facing a shot or putt that really mattered.
More than his mere excellence, for my generation — I’m 55 — Watson is the great golfer that we have gotten to see with our own eyes from pre-prime struggles to peak performances to post-prime amazements led by his runner-up finish at the 2009 British Open at age 59. As intently as I’ve tried to study Nicklaus, I was only 3 when he won his first U.S. Open, 6 when he won the 1965 Masters in awesome fashion, 11 when he sailed his putter toward the sky upon winning his second British Open, at St. Andrews in 1970.
Nearly 20 years my elder, Nicklaus could have been my uncle, or even my father. Watson was like a silly-talented, super-dedicated, high-achieving big brother who hated failure and learned from it in equal measure, a rare and potent attribute for an athlete striving to succeed. Nobody likes losing, but not everybody can build something from the hurt as Watson did after early major blow-ups such as shooting a final-round 79 with the lead in the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Byron Nelson offered help and Watson accepted, the mentoring by one of the very best helping Watson to his first British Open victory the following summer at Carnoustie.
Not long after Watson’s disappointment at Winged Foot, I was a standard bearer for his grouping in the 1974 World Open at Pinehurst No. 2. For a 15-year-old totally hooked on golf, 18 holes with Watson was quite an education. There were detours — in the pines, in bunkers, in ill-conceived love grass someone thought was a good idea — but he never got lost. “Watson pars,” as he fondly remembers them, could be as creative as a brainstorming room of very smart people, and they sustained him until he sank a long birdie putt, or more than one. He was as unafraid of a significant comebacker as Arnold Palmer had been from the late-1950s until the mid-1960s.
But like Palmer, Watson’s window of putting invincibility wasn’t extended. By the late-1980s, trouble on the short ones — the 1987 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, when he lost to Scott Simpson, springs to mind — seemed make the odds long of his sticking around like Nicklaus, for whom age was never a saboteur on the greens.
Watson is an outlier for what came next, because instead of letting shaky putting drive him out of competition, as it does for so many, he persevered to win again. Sure, his last major victory did come when he was 33, but after a nine-year drought on the PGA Tour he won the 1996 Memorial when he was 46 and at Colonial two years later. Unlike one of his idols, Sam Snead, Watson didn’t go to an exotic putting method when things went south, he kept both hands in a conventional grip and kept on putting until they started to drop again. In a different kind of way, it was air as rare as when he was usurping Nicklaus with a putter touched by magic. Being more dogged than victim is hard work.
Along the way, in 1994, Watson had a revelation about how to swing the club. He began keeping his shoulders on the same plane on backswing and downswing and not finishing in the reverse-C position as prevalent in the 1970s as loud pants and hard collars. It simplified his ball-striking that had always been nurtured by heavy practice and has allowed him to do the things he has done in recent years like winning the 2011 Senior PGA Championship at the record age of 61 or threatening to win that event again this year when he closed with a 65 at age 64.
Of course, what will always be the atomic asterisk on Watson’s record, what will distinguish him from golfers who have won more, is how he had walked the 2009 British Open so far down the aisle it was crazy. At 59, 11 years older than the oldest major winner. Twenty-six years after his eighth and final major triumph. With an artificial left hip. Without appearing that it was any big deal when it was sport’s — not just golf’s — arguably all-time almost.
He was on the 18th hole on a Sunday afternoon at Turnberry, where he’d won remarkably 32 years earlier, an 8-iron and two putts away from achieving something of a size never seen, an extra dimension beyond a record sixth British Open. Then there was a puff of wind or a piece of extra-firm turf where the ball landed, perhaps both, and presently Watson had an eight-footer for a winning par that made him, for a painful instant as the ball rolled weakly toward a playoff and second place, seem every bit his advanced golf age.
Men, some of them roughly a third Watson’s age, will have eight-footers during the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles that mean a lot, if not the weight of his singular putt at Turnberry. Whatever he says or whatever you think, there will be occasions when Watson wishes he had a putter in his hands, alone in a crowd to win or lose, to see what he is made of one more deliciously difficult time. That’s whose birthday it is.