FRED WOLFERMAN: The Time I Outplayed Tom Watson
By the late '50s, there was a short, red-headed kid slogging around the Kansas City Country Club carrying his clubs in all kinds of weather.
He was out there almost every day, doggedly playing and practicing, sometimes under the eye of his father, himself an excellent player, sometimes under that of club pro Stan Thirsk, himself a better-than-excellent player, but mostly, alone.
He stood over putts on 18, thinking, as we all did, "This is for the Masters. Or the U.S. Open. Or THE Open." He made most of them. Fifty years later, he had one more, and missed.
I was a teenage golf addict myself then, and though my family did not belong to the Kansas City Country Club at the time, I played there often with friends. They would point this kid out to me and tell me he could beat anybody around. I didn't know him from Adam, but I saw the big arc and the hard release, and wasn't about to argue.
"Watson," my friends told me.
Fifteen years later, I was a member, and I played with a gang that often included the kid, all grown up and winning tournaments -- lots of them.
We were a hard-core bunch and played in virtually any weather that did not include snow actually on the ground. It could be falling, though. Tom played mostly in the winter, because he was usually busy on weekends in the summer.
There could be anywhere from six to 16 of us on a given day. The balls went up, and you had a partner. Tom played to a plus-five. You would think it might be tough to carry a partner who had to add five shots (We always played them where they fell, the USGA notwithstanding. I'm not sure why.) It wasn't. He could play to plus five without any problem.
He was very quick with the needle, but he got as much as he gave, and anybody would have thought he was just another one of the guys until you noticed that he'd shot 65. Again. You won't be surprised to learn that he holds the course record of 60. The rating is 73.3.
The club had a special Watson flag made. And every time he won, up it went, right beneath the Stars and Stripes. It flew a lot in those days.
I can make a claim that was scarcely credible then, and seems less so now: I beat Tom Watson. Scratch. It was one Christmas Eve in the early '80s. You'd think I would have had the date carved on a giant granite slab, but alas, I did not. I shot a miraculous 70, and he had a bad day. There were witnesses.
The Watsons hosted an annual Christmas Eve party in those days, and my wife and I were invited. I told her not to say a word about the round. Nobody cared but me; certainly Tom would have dismissed it from his mind. I was not more than three steps inside the house when Tom put his arm around my shoulder and shouted to about 50 people, "Hey! This is the guy who beat me today."
You will read and hear a lot of stuff about how great was his run at last week's Open; how proud he should be; how it only added to his legend. I will tell you with complete confidence that his response would not be printable here. He was not thinking about his age or records or failing gallantly. He wanted to win, period.
He will almost certainly never have another chance, and that will grate. Stewart Cink played a fine tournament, and Tom would be the first to say, "Hey! This is the guy who beat me today." Still, Cink may become a latter-day Jack Fleck, albeit a more talented one. He will always be the guy who stole Watson's sixth Open.
Tom may not have the power he once did, but he still makes a big turn and hits the ball hard. He can drive it straight, and on a links course he can keep up with anybody. His ball-striking was pure last week, he out-thought everybody, and even his famously balky putter behaved for almost four full days. Almost.
What would he have given for just one of those 50-years-ago putts to win the Open?
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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