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The Constant

The Constant

Tom Watson on Luck, Humility, and the Mental Side of Golf

Tim Barnicle

The game of golf has changed so much over the years.

The courses are longer. The equipment is more sophisticated. The players are bigger. Even the ball flies longer and straighter. But there have been a few constants. The feeling of a perfectly flushed 4-iron. A putt from 20-plus feet that manages to find the hole. A wedge shot that checks up perfectly. A bad roll that turns a birdie into a three-putt bogey.

And Tom Watson.

“The bottom line of the game is still you tee the ball up, and you try to get the ball in the hole in as few strokes as possible—that hasn’t changed. It didn’t change from 1860 when the first Open Championship was played at the 12-hole golf course at OId Prestwick and it hasn’t changed since then.”

Golf is not a fair game.

Tom Watson

“It’s still the same game.” But as he notes, “golf is not a fair game.” Watson grew up learning the game in Missouri, landlocked and 4,000 miles from the undulations and sandy soil that would make him a legend.

Moving west, Watson went to Stanford University, where he played golf, table tennis, and majored in Psychology. Watson has said his degree from one of the world’s finest institutions hasn’t meant much. “It really didn’t help, even in a mental game like golf,” he told Esquire in 2015. “The only thing Psychology made me understand was how crazy everybody was.”

Credit: Stanford Athletics

It’s hard not to take a venerable figure like Watson at his word. The mental side of the game has dogged every golfer, from 20 handicappers looking to break 100, to all-time greats trying to win a Major. As the old saying goes, “golf is 85 percent mental, and 15 percent psychological.” Or as Ben Crenshaw has said, “I am about five inches from being an outstanding golfer—that’s the distance my left ear is from my right.”

The mental side of golf is the constant: it teaches you about fairness, luck, humility, and failure.

That’s true even for a Stanford graduate.

Watson joined the PGA Tour in 1971, and his first opportunity for greatness came in 1974 when he contended for the U.S. Open title at Winged Foot in 1974. He held the 54-hole lead headed into Sunday. But he blew it. In the final round, he bogeyed three holes on the front nine, and then six more on the back. He shot a 79 in a colossal choke. He finished tied for 5th, alongside Jim Colbert, and Arnold Palmer in his last Top-5 finish in a major. Shortly thereafter, Watson had the chance to ask an aging Ben Hogan a question.

“Mr. Hogan, how nervous did you get when you were playing in a golf tournament?”

“Tom, I got so nervous I was jumping out of my skin.”

It can’t be understated that Tom Watson and Ben Hogan, standing together then as a future legend of the game and one who had already changed the game (and the swing) forever, didn’t talk about how to play a particular hole, or a particular shot. They talked about the mental game, and essentially, the fear of failure.

As Watson says now, “You have to deal with the failures. And that’s what strengthens your character, and that’s what strengths your golf game. Dealing with the failures and trying to figure out why you failed.”

It wasn’t until the 1975 Open Championship at Carnoustie when Watson overcame those early failures and began a run as one of the greatest links golfers of all time. In the final round, Watson managed to shoot an even par 72—good enough to tie the lead and force an 18-hole playoff on Sunday, which he won by 1 stroke. At any point in the Playoff, his ball could have taken a bad bounce and turned a one-stroke victory into a one-stroke loss. Again, golf is not a fair game.

As Watson says, “luck is the factor on links golf courses you have to deal with.

Links golf is an experiment in adaptability. Those who can manage to make it through the wind, through the rain, through the undulations, and through the sandy soil with their spirit and will to score still intact, can hope to make it out alive. Like he says, “you have to persevere in this game.”

The 1975 Open was his first major title, at just 26 years old. Two years later, Watson would be paired up with Jack Nicklaus in the final round of the 1977 Open Championship, in what would later be remembered as the “Duel in the Sun.” Watson and Nicklaus had nearly lapped the field headed into Saturday (then the day of the final round, not Sunday). Headed to the 18th hole, Watson had a 1-shot lead. Watson striped his drive, and then put a 7-iron to two feet, all but ensuring victory. But after putting his drive into the rough, Nicklaus hit an 8-iron onto the green and sank a 35-footer to nearly forcing a playoff. But Watson sank the putt. He won by 1-stroke, shooting a 65, besting Nicklaus’ 66, the two finishing the tournament at -12, and -11, respectively. For perspective, the third-place finisher, Lee Trevino, shot even par for the tournament.

The 1977 Open was his 3rd Major win, coming just three months after he beat Nicklaus at the Masters. He won the Open again in 1980, at Muirfield—that time by 4 strokes. He won again in 1982, at Royal Troon, by a single stroke, just months after he beat Nicklaus again with a chip-in on 17 at Pebble Beach, in one of golf’s most iconic moments. Watson won the Open again 1983, at Royal Birkdale, by a single stroke over Andy Bean and Hale Irwin.

Again, a single stroke.

But the lasting memory for many fans, and maybe even a piece of Tom Watson himself, isn’t of one of his eight major victories. It isn’t a moment of glory. It’s a moment of failure. A moment when the ball bounced not toward his favor, but toward his failure.

It’s a memory of a single stroke. A moment when his ball did take a bad bounce when luck betrayed him. Or just another example of what every player who has ever teed the ball up knows: golf is not fair game.

The Birth of The Open explores the illustrious journey of golf’s original Championship. While making this film for the R&A, Erik and his team sat with Tom Watson for this discussion.

On the afternoon of July 19, 2009, Tom Watson stood on the 18th hole at Turnberry, the same hole where he found glory 32 years before when he was a young man. Now he was 59, 26 years removed from his last Claret Jug.

All he needed to do was make par.

After striping his drive, Watson took an 8-iron for his approach, skipping the ball about 20 yards past the hole.

“As luck would have it, it hit on a downslope, and it went over the green and I failed to get up and down. I still had control over the situation. If I get the ball up and down, I win the Open Championship.”

As Watson says now, golf is “about the acceptance of the luck involved.”

He missed the putt that would have won the Open. That single stroke forced a playoff, and Watson, at 59, ran out of gas. Stewart Cink won the 4-hole Playoff. Golf history was robbed of what could have been, what would have been, one of its greatest moments

I accepted it. It was hard to accept. But that’s just the way the game is.

Tom Watson

That humility, the unique ability to overcome and accept the ups and downs of a game that can absolutely gut you, is what has made Tom Watson unique in the pantheon of golf. When he says, “you hit a good shot, you get a bad break; you hit a bad shot, you get a good break,” he is not only talking about a single round or a single shot, he is talking about the very essence of the game itself. He’s talking about a ball that has rolled through the sands of time, from Ben Hogan’s 1-iron at Merion in, to Tiger’s chip-in at Augusta on 16 in 2005, and Watson’s own chip in 1982 at Pebble. Any bad bounce could have made those now-iconic shots into duds. But for those players, the ball rolled their way on that day. And like so many more, the ball did not roll Watson’s way in July of 2009 at Turnberry like it did in June of 1982 at Pebble.

Golf, to be sure, is not a fair game.

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