Shatel: Fixing old times for an old hero, Tom Watson -
Published Tuesday, July 9, 2013 at 9:03 pm / Updated at 1:00 am
U.S. Senior Open
Shatel: Fixing old times for an old hero, Tom Watson

Tom Watson is a golf god.

He's a timeless piece of history, a face on golf's Mount Rushmore, still marching down the fairway, chasing glory in the PGA Tour, the U.S. Senior Open, the Ryder Cup.

He's a gold standard. The rarest of gems, a kid from the heartland who grew up to conquer the world.

It's a privilege to watch him tee it up.

I just wish I'd known that in 1983.

Thirty years ago this summer, I was the golf writer at the Kansas City Star. Which meant I had one main assignment.

The hometown hero named Watson.

Tom who?

That's an inside joke, but the joke way back then was on me.

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I saw him on Tuesday. I followed Watson during his practice round at Omaha Country Club, and it was like 1983 all over again. There I was, still walking with Tom, still waiting by the 18th hole to grab him for a few questions. Waiting for him to sign his name for the masses. Sprint-walking with him to the locker room. A golf time machine.

This time, I had a mission. Some would call it silly, some would say unnecessary, but after 30 years, I needed to set something right.

The golf beat came in 1981. Watson was in the eye of the hurricane then, No. 1 in the world, winning at least one major a year. This was like covering Arnold Palmer in 1960 or Jack Nicklaus in 1972 or Tiger Woods in 2000.

I was a couple years out of college, a college football nut, with one foot in the golf beat. I knew Watson was a big deal. Golf, to me, was not.

The travel did not stink. My first Watson assignment was the 1981 Bing Crosby Clambake at Pebble Beach, won by a young John Cook. And the 1981 World Series of Golf at Firestone.

When our sports columnist didn't bump me, I attended a handful of majors. The Masters from 1982-84, the U.S. Open in 1983 and 1984 and the British Open and PGA in 1984.

My relationship with Watson was good, but it could have been better, and that was on me. When he was in town, you met him at his home club, Kansas City Country Club, for interviews. I still remember the back room of the clubhouse with the framed stories of Watson's 1975 and 1977 British Open wins.

Watson was the legend next door in K.C., the city's fourth sports franchise (the Kings were there until 1984). He was accessible, if you tried. I didn't.

The golf press tent back then was a clique of good-natured veteran scribes, one from each major city, who were at least 20 years my senior. Golf was their sport, their life, not mine. This was something for me to do until I got to cover Nebraska beating Kansas, K-State and Missouri by 30 every other week.

My relationship with Watson was such that when I was covering him, I touched base before the tourney started, and then interviewed him after each round. That was it.

The man won 39 times on the PGA Tour and has eight major titles, and I didn't see one of them in person. Didn't get to cover the chip at Pebble Beach or the wins at the British.

How do I know this? Because at one point, someone close to Watson (it may have been Chuck Rubin, his gregarious brother-in-law and agent) told me, “You know, whenever you're around, he doesn't win.”

It wasn't personal. But it could have been. There was never a shortage of snark or hard edge in my coverage of Watson. And there could have been some times when I went for the cheap line, or the headline, but I can't remember that far back.

I'll never forget 1983, however.

Most superstars have a charity soft spot, and Watson's was the Children's Mercy Hospital, a wonderful place that cared for sick and dying children. Watson raised more than $12 million for the hospital from his charity golf classic. The giants of the game all came to K.C. to play an 18-hole exhibition for those precious kids.

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In 1983, Watson invited a couple of his friends, Bob Murphy and Bob Gilder, who weren't big names but very good players and good guys on the tour.

Watson had had Nicklaus, Palmer, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and so on. The tone of my preview story was, who were these guys? Bob who?

The headline even said, “Bob Who?”

When I got to the course that day, I was roasted by everyone from Watson and his handlers on down to the guy selling snow cones.

I shrugged. Whatever. Let's play and move on.

Anyway, flash forward one year. I'm standing in St. Andrews, Scotland. And not just in any place. I'm standing behind the wall of the famous Road Hole, the par-4 17th at St. Andrews.

It was early Sunday evening on a warm Scottish summer day. Watson was in position to tie Harry Vardon with a career sixth British Open championship. He had the lead most of the day, brushing by young Ian Baker-Finch. Now, out of nowhere, came Seve Ballesteros. The air was full of history and bagpipes.

They were tied as Watson stood in the fairway on 17. Up ahead on 18, Ballesteros was on in two.

I'll never forget what happened next. Watson misjudged the wind and hit his iron over the green, where it hit the road and stopped by the wall. As he was looking over his third shot, a loud roar went up at 18 and shook the sacred ground.

Seve had made birdie.

The Spaniard would win the 1984 British Open. And this goofy sportswriter from K.C. would soak it all in: flying to London, driving on the wrong side of the road through the Scotland countryside, hearing bagpipes, getting chills at watching two titans on golf's grandest stage.

I fell in love with golf right there and then.

A year later, they took me off the beat.

It coincided with the beginning of the end of Watson's prime (though some would argue he had another one). He would win a handful of tournaments, but no majors. And as I fell into golf's irrepressible grip, taking up the game and learning its history, I followed him from afar, through the yips, swing changes, the death of his friend and caddie.

And that 2009 British Open. Ah, Watson broke my heart on that one. Finally, we had something in common.

This leads me back to Omaha Country Club on an open-air, blast-furnace afternoon. And my selfish little mission.

I don't know if it's true that you get smarter as you grow older. But standards mean more. Integrity, doing things the right way, all that jazz. You hold it more dear. At least for me.

I wanted to find Watson, 30 years later, and apologize for the cheap shots and insults, especially at his home tourney and with that good cause and everything. Nobody there had done anything to deserve that.

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Maybe, too, I was saying I'm sorry I didn't take you more serious, sorry I didn't respect the story, the story of a lifetime.

Watson finished on No. 9, and he signed his name on hats and flags and whatever else people offered for a good 15 minutes — after spending four hours walking around in the heat.

Finally, a guard showed him a side door into the clubhouse and I sneaked behind him. I followed him all the way through the old clubhouse, and down to the locker room, going where I wasn't allowed. But nobody even noticed me; they were all too busy saying hi to Watson.

We found his locker and he plopped down on a bench in front of it. I sat next to him and told him my story. He remembered the incident, the headline. He remembered everything.

Here's what he said, after all these years: “Water under the bridge. Don't worry about it. I've been there. I've said some things I wished I wouldn't have.”

We talked some more, we shook hands and he said he really appreciated hearing that. But, finally, the journalist I wished I'd been 30 years ago kicked in. I asked him a couple questions.

Mainly, why is the 63-year-old Watson still out there, sweating it out with “seniors” who are 10 to 13 years younger than him? Why take on the responsibility and pressure of the 2014 Ryder Cup captainship? Why keep chasing the little white ball down those fairways?

He said: “I love the competition. I still love to compete. It's not easy. The golf swing isn't what it used to be. The speed isn't there anymore. I can't hit it way down there like I used to.

“But there are times when I'm close. There are times when I can still find that groove and I can compete out there. But I also know that the day is coming when that groove won't be there. It will be gone.

“That's going to be a hard day for me, a very hard day. When that day arrives, that's when I know I'll be done out here. And that day is approaching.”

Thank goodness, then, that I got here in time for a mulligan.

That's what this U.S. Senior Open is about, in many ways. Yeah, there are young fans out here, new fans.

But there's a generation out there that does remember Langer and Haas and Irwin and the freckled-faced auburn-haired kid from K.C. Living here in Nebraska, these were names you saw on TV, not in person.

And that's the best part about this fountain of youth tour: In no other sport do you see men in their 50s and 60s still competing. You wouldn't get to see George Brett or Joe Montana still getting after it. But Fred Couples can still crush it a country mile and look like he just walked out of a 1992 video.

For those who relish a second chance to see their heroes, this mulligan is for you. Everyone has a favorite this week. Mine is obvious.

I think it's about time I saw Tom Watson win a golf tournament.

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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