This is a 1965 photo of Arnold Palmer and 15-year-old Tom Watson playing in an exhibition match in Kansas City.
I will never be able to come grips with how fast the years go by and I am constantly amazed at what I remember and what I don’t remember. For example, has it really been 49 years and six months since the Chiefs defeated the Minnesota Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl IV? And while I can still tell you the jersey numbers of virtually all of the Chiefs starters that year, I often fail the WHO-DID-YOU-PLAY-WITH-TODAY test when I get home from a round of golf. (I can usually come up with two of the three names, but it often takes me many minutes to come up with the fourth.)
I think it is safe to say that we all have VERY-PERSONAL-FOREVER memories that begin in childhood and will continue to be logged – the name of your first best friend in grade school; your family’s first beach vacation; your first girlfriend; high school graduation night; meeting your first college roommates (Timothy Parker Stevens and Fred Harold Wollinsky); your first home loan; your first date with your wife; the birth of your children; the loss of a parent; holding your first grandchild …
Then there are the I-WILL-ALWAYS-REMEMBER memories, which can range from historical moments in time to just plain fun. One of my I-WILL-ALWAYS-REMEMBER memories is bitter sweet.
In 2009, I was at a gift trade show in a beautiful, northern England spa town, Harrogate, during (British) Open Championship week. While the show was busy with buyers, I freely admit that I would have preferred being a spectator at Turnberry. I love watching all of the Majors, but The Open has been my favorite for many reasons – it’s long and rich history (the first Open was played in 1860 Prestwick GC); our own Tom Watson; the beauty of true British links courses and the unpredictable nature of the weather.
That year the favorites were Tiger Woods (2 to 1), Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia (16 to 1), Ernie Els (25-1) and Englishman Lee Westwood (28 to 1). Given the fact that sports betting is legal in the UK and a small wager can make following an event more interesting, I put £10 on Tiger Woods to win on Thursday and out of loyalty a £10 to-win bet on Tommy. Yes, I knew he was 59, but at 100 to 1 odds, I simply couldn’t resist.
On Thursday and Friday, two of us were manning our both, which allowed me to take a long lunch and an leave a bit early to head to a local pub to watch The Open. At Friday’s lunch I became a bit of a celebrity when one of locals asked me, “Where do you live in the States?” When I told him, “Kansas City,” he said, “That’s were Tommy is from. Is he as popular there as he is here? We love him here.”
My Tiger bet was a bust. He didn’t even make the cut. However, after the second round Tom was tied with American Steve Marino for 1st place with a score of 5 under par. It was an amazing performance and, to be perfectly honest, I was little-boy excited, which is why working a greeting-card booth on Saturday was one of the longest work days of my life. Yes, I ducked out twice – once for lunch and once in the afternoon “to walk the show” – to get a catch-up on Tom. Both times I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Tom was more than holding his own in Round 3. He finished the day in first place at 4 under, leading Mathew Goggin and Ross Fisher by one stroke and Retief Goosen and Lee Westwood by two.
Now you know why I stopped by William Hill, a UK bookmaker, after the show and put down an additional £20 on Tommy to win at the drastically reduced odds of 5 to 2.
On Judgment Day Sunday, I was to work the booth solo with only occasional help from one of our sales reps. Throughout the morning I kept thinking about Tom and my booth, which now felt like a prison. About 2 p.m. a miracle occurred. One of our reps came by with his son the university student. Twenty-five pounds later the university student was holding a pen and a clipboard with order forms and I was headed to the nearest pub to watch the end of The Open.
When I arrived at the very packed pub the leaders were already on the back 9. The pub was divided into two camps – Englishman Lee Westwood, who was one of the best golfers never to have won a Major and Tom. (And he still hasn’t) The Westwood camp was pro Lee, certainly not anti Tom. However, after Westwood bogeyed 18, leaving him one shot behind Stewart Cink, who was the leader in the clubhouse at 2 under, the entire pub save one man started rooting for Tom. That one man was cheering for Cink for one reason and one reason only: “I have £100 on Stewart,” he declared to the crowd. In the UK, that is considered to be a legitimate defense.
We all know how this story ends. Tom’s second shot to the 18th went over the green and he bogeyed the hole, which left him tied with Cink at 2 under par. What I will never forget about that day was the collective groan when Tom missed his par putt, sending the tournament into a four-hole playoff. Unfortunately, history was not made that day. Tom didn’t become the oldest player to win a Major, but he put on a hell of a show for four days, a show that had golf fans all over the world rooting for him.
Of course, that is just one Tommy memory. He has given us so many others, most notably his three head-to-head victories over Jack Nicklaus – the 1977 Masters, “The Duel in the Sun” at the 1977 Open Championship and the 1982 chip-in win at Pebble Beach.
That chip-in certainly left a lasting memory with Nicklaus: "If I ran into a genie and he granted me one wish to have one back, it would be '82 at Pebble Beach. That would have made five U.S. Opens. Nobody's done that. I really thought that was mine. Jack Whitaker was by the 18th green, congratulating me on TV. There was a monitor behind us, and then we heard this big roar. Oops. Tom Watson had chipped in for birdie at No. 17."
I am lucky enough to have memories of Tommy when he was a for-real, three-sport athlete in high school. I was in the class of 1970 and Tom was in ‘67. When you are an underclassman with a desire to someday be a varsity starter, you went to every varsity game and followed your favorite players. Tom, the savvy quarterback and the gutsy guard, along with Kirkland Gates (defensive back and a b-ball forward with sharp elbows) and Tom Greene (defensive and offensive end and a center/forward with a soft touch) were the three I followed religiously. I wanted to be like Tommy, Kirkland and Tom because all three of them were good and tough. They cared.
Thinking about it, I now know exactly why The Open Championship is far and away my favorite tournament: It’s because of Tommy. Yes, it’s always fun to follow a winner and indeed he won a lot – especially The Open. Above and beyond that though is the fact that Tom Watson always gave it his all. As his friend Lee Trevino said in 1979, “Watson scares me. If he’s lying six in the middle of the fairway, there’s some kind of way he might make a five.”
Simply said, Tom has made a career of making memories for millions of us. What a career! What a legacy!
P.S. If you haven’t had a chance to read the Sports Illustrated about the 2009 Open, do so. Also the Golf Channel’s “Tom At Turnberry” is very well done.