The Library

A Good Walked Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour
by John Feinstein

Chapter 1: “The Only Time Your Legs Ever Shake”


When the European PGA finds a Ryder Cup captain it is comfortable with, the job is his for as long as he wants. Tony Jacklin, the onetime U.S. and British Open champion who captained for life if he had so desired, especially after winning the cup in 1985 and 1987 and retaining it with a tie in 1989. Bernard Gallacher, Jacklin’s successor, kept the job in spite of losing in 1991 and was asked back again after 1993 - even though he had said before the matches that he intended to step down.

The PGA of America, which governs the Ryder Cup in the United States, takes the opposite approach. Although repeat Ryder Cup captains were once the norm - Walter Hagen was the American captain the first six times the matches were played - nowadays the captaincy is considered a one-shot deal. If you are asked a second time, it will undoubtedly be several years down the road from the first time. So, even though he would have liked to have kept the job, Dave Stockton knew his work was over in 1991 as soon as Bernhard Langer’s six-foot putt on the final hole of the final match had slid past the cup, giving the U.S. a 14 ½ to 13 ½ victory and returning the cup to the U.S. for the first time since 1985.

And there was very little doubt about who would defend the title Stockton had helped win: Thomas Sturges Watson.

Until Nick Price’s recent emergence, Watson was golf’s last truly dominant player. Between 1975 and 1983 he won eight major titles - five British Opens, two Masters, and one U.S. Open. He was player of the year six times and led the PGA Tour money list five times. Three times he went head-to-head with Jack Nicklaus down the stretch in majors and beat him. When he chipped in on the 71st hole of the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach to steal that title from Nicklaus, the greatest player in the game’s history looked him in the eye and said, “You did it to me again, you little SOB.”

Nicklaus was joking, but there was a large chunk of truth in what he said. Every great athlete has a mean streak in him somewhere. You can’t consistently destroy the dreams of your competitors without it. If you pause to think what a victory will mean to the other guy, you may not be quite as willing to step on him when you need to. Especially in golf, where the margin for error is usually so razor thin, that tiny kernel of doubt often turns winners into losers.

Tom Watson never doubts. And he never backs away from a fight. He once thought he saw Nicklaus gesture at him with his putter - as if to say, “Take that” - after Nicklaus made a bomb to regain the lead during the final round of the Masters in 1977. Watson angrily took the gesture personally, birdied two of the last four holes, and won. When he learned later that Nicklaus hadn’t been gesturing at him, Watson apologized for his thoughts but certainly not for his victory.

Watson never thinks something, he knows it, whether the subject is golf or politics or wine. It is no coincidence that his nickname on tour is Carnac Junior. Nicklaus was the original Carnac. Watson his successor, because both men, like the Old Johnny Carson character, Carnac the Magnificent, always seem to know the answers before you ask the questions.

Nicklaus, ten years younger than Arnold Palmer, had unseated The King as the game’s best player. In 1977, Watson, ten years younger than Nicklaus, succeeded him at the top of the sport. But unlike Nicklaus, who kept winning major titles until he was forty-six, Watson lost the hunger somewhere along the way. When he won his fifth British Open in 1983 he was thirty-four, the same age Palmer had been when he won his fourth Masters and seventh major. Like Palmer, who never won another major, Watson stopped winning. He should have won another British Open in 1984, but he let it slip away to Seve Ballesteros on the back nine at St. Andrews and was never quite the same again. He was still good - very good at times - but never dominant.

“I accomplished a lot of my goals in a relatively short period of time and I made a lot of money,” Watson said ten years later. “When I was younger, before I had children and money, all I wanted to do was play golf, work at my golf, get better at my golf. But when the children came [Meg in 1979 and Michael in 1982] my time with them was very important to me.

“For a long time, I thought that was the major reason I didn’t play as well. But it wasn’t that simple. I definitely lost some edge. I didn’t work as hard at my game. It just wasn’t quite as important to me.”

No one wins year in and year out, especially in the tournaments that matter most, without being an SOB. Somewhere, some of the SOB seeped out of Watson and the winning that had occurred so regularly - thirty-nine times in twelve years - came to a sudden halt. By the time he was named Ryder Cup captain late in 1991, Watson was eight years past his last major title and four years distant from his last win on tour.

Even so, he was still one of the game’s most revered figures. He had always been popular with the fans, even as the young upstart challenger to Nicklaus. He was shy and almost obsessively private, but he had the kind of swashbuckling look and game that appealed to many. At 5-foot-9 he wasn’t eye-catching, but he had Popeye-sized arms, reddish-brown hair, and a friendly gap-toothed grin that caused writers obsessively to compare him to Huck Finn.

And, like Palmer, he made golf into an adventure. He had a long, looping swing that sent the ball great distances, not always in the right direction. A round of golf with Watson was often a whirlwind tour of trees, meadows, water, and sand. Somehow, when he emerged eighteen holes later, Watson had scrambled and chipped and putted his way into the lead or close to it.

No one could get out of trouble the way Watson could. He was a genius around the greens and the boldest putter anyone ever saw. His putts never dropped over the front lip, they banged the back of the cup, bounced in the air, and then dropped in. Watson was so good at making miraculous recoveries that the ultimate compliment you could pay another player who had found a way out of trouble to make par was to tell him, “That was a Watson par.”

Away from the golf course, Watson wasn’t much different from the kids he had grown up with outside Kansas City or the ones he had gone to Stanford with. But golf made him special. He became so good at it that he became a part of the game’s history and lore. A hundred years from now they will still talk about Nicklaus and Watson dueling down the stretch at Turnberry in 1977, and everyone who ever plays Pebble Beach will walk over to the spot on 17 where Watson hit The Chip and look at the thick grass and shake their heads and say, “How in the world did he do that?”

Great golfers are remembered forever. Watson reveled in that. He became a student of the game’s history and of its great players. Byron Nelson became his teacher, mentor, and inspiration after he blew up in the last round of the 1974 U.S. Open, shooting 79 at Winged Foot after leading for fifty-four holes.

Watson absorbed Nelson’s teachings and he read every book he could find on Vardon and Hagen and Hogan and Jones. After he won his first Masters in 1977, he sat and listened intently each year at the Champions Dinner to all the great players who had won the title before him. “It was like going to an annual seminar on the history of the game,” he said.

By dint of his hard work, he became a part of that history. His five British Open victories put him behind only Vardon’s six. That made the near miss at St. Andrews in 1984 that much more disappointing. Even so, he became an adopted son in all of Great Britain, but most of all in Scotland. Growing up in Kansas City, he had been Tommy Watson, but to the rest of the world he was Tom - except in Scotland, where he again became Tommy - or “Toom.” They cheered him as if he were one of their own. He returned the feeling. This was, after all, the ancestral home of golf and if these people felt an attachment to him, then it meant he was part of something special.

All those feelings led Watson to seek the Ryder Cup captaincy for 1993. As a young player he had dreamed of playing Ryder Cup. He knew all about the traditions that dated back to 1927 and loved the idea of being part of a team, something one almost never got to do in golf. Even in college, although you were on a team, you always played stroke play, meaning that it wasn’t really much different from playing in a tournament.

In Ryder Cup, though, everything was match play: head-to-head. You spent two days playing with a partner, then played one singles match on Sunday. There were twelve players on each team, and for one week every other year, golfers actually meshed into a unit, rooting for one another, living together, sometimes dying together.

Watson’s first Ryder Cup as a player had been in 1977, the last year that Great Britain took on the United States without the rest of Europe. The U.S. won easily - as it always did in those days - but Watson’s memories of the week were vivid. It was at the opening ceremony that he decided he wanted to be a Ryder Cup captain someday.

“It was a classic gray English day and the ceremony was behind the clubhouse at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s,” he said. “Just as the flags were being raised, a gust of wind blew through and the flags unfurled perfectly, just stood straight up and out. Dow Finsterwald was our captain and he talked about what it meant to be part of a Ryder Cup, about all the great players who had taken part and how honored he was to follow in the footsteps of all the captains who had come before him. I just stood there with these shivers going down my back thinking, I want to do that someday.”

The Europeans were added to the British team in 1979, a change that pumped new life into the matches. The European victories in 1985 and 1987, followed by the draw in 1989, had turned the Ryder Cup from a virtually unnoticed biennial competition into an event as big as - perhaps even bigger than - any of the majors.

Watson wasn’t on the American teams that lost in 1985 or 1987 but did play in 1989, the last time the matches had been played in Europe. He knew then that he wanted to captain an American team that would go to Europe and take the cup home.

“I definitely wanted to be the captain over there,” he said. “Winning at home just wasn’t quite the same challenge. I love golf in Britain, I love the fans, and I love their knowledge of the game. They just have a feel for the game that no one else in the world has. Even people who don’t play over there understand the sport. There’s nothing like.”

Watson had watched the 1991 matches played on Kiawah Island in South Carolina, on television and, like a lot of people, was dismayed by what he saw. The matches had been dubbed The War by the Shore before they even began and nothing that happened during the three days dispelled the notion. The American fans were surly and ugly; the feeling between the teams bordered on bitter and sometimes spoiled over beyond that border.

Watching the final day of the match at Kiawah, seeing all that tension and bitterness, had made Watson uncomfortable. He knew that the next American captain would have a lot of work to do not only trying to retain the cup on foreign soil, but also trying to put the proper feeling back into the matches.

Still, he wanted the job. A meeting was set up with Jim Awtrey, the executive director of the PGA, and when it was over, Awtrey stood up, reached his hand across the table, and said, “Well, Tome, you’re our choice.” Watson was amazed. He had walked into the meeting hoping to be a candidate and walked out of it as the captain.

As part of his preparation, Watson talked at length with Nick Faldo about the hard feelings between the two teams at Kiawah. Faldo told him he thought a lot of the problems dated back to 1989, when Raymond Floyd, that year’s American captain, had stood up at the gala dinner held before the start of the matches and had introduced his team as “The twelve best golfers in the world.” Floyd had stolen line from Ben Hogan, who as captain in 1967 had introduced his team that way. Back then, it had been close to the truth. In 1989, it wasn’t. “We all told Tony [Jacklin] that he should get up and introduce Seve as the thirteenth best player in the world,” Faldo said. “we knew what Raymond was trying to do, but considering the fact that we had beaten them pretty soundly the previous two matches, it just wasn’t appropriate.”

The Europeans felt slighted again at the 1991 dinner when a film on the history of the Ryder Cup that the PGA had put together barely made mention of anyone who wasn’t an American. There had been angry words on the golf course between Ballesteros and Paul Azinger. Some of the Americans had even shown up wearing camouflage shirts to emphasize that this really was war.

Watson agreed with Faldo that it had all gone too far. He made a point whenever he was asked about his role as captain to talk about the need to bring good feeling back to the competition. The tradition of competing was as important to him as winning.

“This isn’t war,” he said. “This is golf. We’re going to go over there and try like hell to kick their butts. And they’re going to try like hell to kick ours. That’s as it should be. But when it’s over, we should be able to all go off together, lift a glass, and toast one another. That’s what the Ryder Cup is about.”

Anyone who took that statement to mean that Watson would be satisfied to see his team give it the old college try and go home gallant losers didn’t understand the man. For this Ryder Cup to become part of the glorious résumé he had pieced together, the U.S. had to win. Even a tie, although it would retain the cup, would not be good enough. Watson wanted to take a team into Europe and win. No American team had done that since 1981.

Watson’s preparation was exhaustive. Ten of his players would be selected for him through a points system. The other two he would choose. The most logical picks were Raymond Floyd and Lanny Wadkins, two men who had about as much Ryder Cup experience as anyone alive. Both - especially Wadkins - were friends. Both would be natural leaders on what was shaping up as a relatively inexperienced American team.

But Watson didn’t want to rule anyone out. He talked to other players about who they thought would perform well in the crucible of Ryder Cup competition. He encouraged potential team members to play money matches during their Tuesday practice rounds to get used to head-to-head match play. He studied statistics to see who drove the ball consistently, who made the most birdies, who was most adept at getting the ball up and down from tough spots.

But statistics weren’t going to choose Watson’s players for him. His gut would. There was a good deal of public clamoring for John Daly, golf’s Paul Bunyan. The thinking was that Daly, with his huge drives, would intimidate the Europeans and, in a match-play situation, his bad holes wouldn’t matter as much as they did in stroke play.

Watson liked Daly and thought the huge crowds he brought out were good for golf. But he never considered him for the team. “You can’t take someone over there who has a give-up attitude, and that’s what John has,” he said. “If things go wrong, he picks up or gives up. You can’t have that in Ryder Cup, because if he does that he doesn’t just hurt himself, he hurts the whole team. I couldn’t count on John to go out there for thirty-six holes a day and not give up.”

Other name cropped up. Larry Mize and Fuzzy Zoeller were both experienced and both were playing well as the August 16 deadline for Watson to make his picks approached. And, almost from out of nowhere, Curtis Strange, dormant for more than three years, had suddenly played himself into contention with four straight top-ten finishes. Like Floyd and Wadkins, Strange had Ryder Cup experience and, like Floyd and Wadkins, there was no questioning his heart or his toughness.

Watson knew he wanted Floyd on the team regardless of how he was playing, especially since he had been the captain at the Belfry in 1989. But if Strange had played well at the PGA - the last tournament before the deadline - he would have almost been compelled to pick him ahead of Wadkins, who had struggled for most of the summer.

That would have been an extremely difficult choice for Watson, especially since Wadkins had a better Ryder Cup record than anyone else who would be on the American team. But Strange and Wadkins both rescued Watson from his dilemma: Strange missed the cut at the PGA, and Wadkins stayed on the leader board until the back nine on Sunday. The next morning Watson surprised no one when he named Floyd and Wadkins.

By then, with the help of the PGA, Watson had put together a detailed itinerary and schedule that outlined for the players and their wives virtually everything they would be doing throughout every moment of Ryder Cup week. The thirty-page booklet included travel schedules, daily schedules for players and wives, and instructions on what to wear each day. Also included was a detailed Ryder Cup rulebook, a daily dining schedule, the match schedule, and instructions on how to prepare luggage for the Concorde.

Watson thought of everything. There were notes that said things like “Remember to send dress shirt to laundry today.” And, “Be sure to bring plug adaptors and converters. The electrical outlets are 220V.”

Watson’s biggest concern was not his ability to organize a team or to make certain that the players all wore red on the days he wanted them to wear red. He knew he could handle all that. What he worried about was the unknown: his ability to coach.

That is, after all, exactly what a Ryder Cup captain is: a coach. Watson had never coached and didn’t know much about coaching. Always a reader, he began studying successful coaches and what they said about motivation, about dealing with players who have failed, about making sure a team is getting along. He also met with Roy Williams, the basketball coach at Kansas University.

Williams is an avid golfer, a seven-handicapper, and he was more than happy to talk to Watson. A few weeks before the team was scheduled to leave for England, he and Watson met at a golf course halfway between Lawrence and Kansas City. It was late in the afternoon so, instead of playing, Watson and Williams drove a cart to the far end of the range and sat and talked while the sun set and the range emptied.

Watson had been concerned throughout the summer about the pressure of playing on the road and the advantage the Europeans would have with the backing of their crowd. He remembered how the American team had failed to respond down the stretch on the final day in 1989 and it worried him.

“You know it can work both ways,” Williams told him. “There’s always pressure on the home team because they’re supposed to win. We always tell our players that there’s nothing better than quieting the other team’s crowd. I tell them to listen for the silence, because you’ll never hear anything sweeter, and to be sure to look up at the end and watch the stands empty out when we’re ahead.”

Watson like that. He had another question: Do you try to match players who get along or do you throw opposites in together?

“Depends,” Williams said. “But if you’ve got one guy who is always up and confident and another guy who tends to get down, they might be perfect together.”

Watson made a note of that too. He had a hundred different playing combinations in his head and he was looking for anything that might help his decision. It was almost dark when they finally returned to the clubhouse. Watson felt good as he drove away hearing William’s words in his head. “Listen for the silence.”

A Good Walk Spoiled: Back to Days and Nights on the PGA Tour - Part One