Scottish swansong would be perfect way for US Ryder captain to sign off
AFTER the Monday night Q&A and the Tuesday morning press conference, after the TV interviews and the radio interviews and the photographs and the daily newspapers and now the Sunday newspapers, American Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson has every right to sit down for another interview at Gleneagles and say: “Fellas, I’ve been talking for two days solid and I don’t have one single thought left in my head”. But he doesn’t say that. He says: “What can I do for you, gentlemen?”
And then he begins talking about the end of his professional golf career.
“As you well know, professional golfers can be pretty selfish and that attribute is pretty apparent in all the great players,” he says. “The older you get the more you understand that there are things that are more important than just winning a golf tournament.” Or 70 tournaments as the case may be, including those eight majors, five of them Open Championships, four won in Scotland, plus three Senior Opens on top, all of them won in the country where he is revered.
“I am who I am. The older you get, the wiser you should become. There’s an element of that in my case. I haven’t played particularly well lately, which is a disappointment and continues to be a disappointment. I see the horizon getting closer to the time when I’m going to have to hang it up. And I don’t relish that fact. I don’t like it, because this is what I do. I’m a professional golfer. But, besides being a professional golfer, I’m other things and those things have probably become more important in my life.”
Watson is 64 years old. After all the hype and hoopla of that “Year To Go” Ryder Cup event beginning with a steam engine pulling out of Waverley and heading for Gleneagles, we now saw a more contemplative Watson, one who spoke about how lucky he has been in his career. Lucky to win the things he has won and lucky to stay injury-free. Lucky, but also knowing that nothing lasts forever. “I go back to my ability to be able to play. If I can’t play competitive golf the way I think I have to, then I’ll hang it up. I don’t know if I’m going to be a hanger-on, [telling myself] that I can still do it. You get to that time when you say: ‘I’m playing pretty good, I’m going to go out and play again’. Usually that doesn’t work. I don’t think it has ever proven to work. But it’s hard to give it up.
“I have to be honest with you, I’ve been thinking about it. You have to prepare for the future. You can’t just say: ‘I’m done. Now what do I do?’ You have to be prepared. My wife, Hilary, has horses and she’s getting more involved in competition and, instead of her following me around, I’ll follow her around because I enjoy what she does. I love photography. I like working on my farm. I like to do different things for people to raise funds. I can still use golf as a vehicle for helping charities. But as far as competitive golf? I’m not relishing that time when I call it quits.”
Given his story, where better for it to end than Scotland? Open Championships won at Carnoustie, Turnberry, Muirfield and Troon. Seniors Open championships won at Turnberry, Royal Aberdeen and Muirfield. The only problem is that his Open Championship exemption runs out next year – at Hoylake. So maybe there will be no Old Course farewell for Watson, no posing on the Swilcan Bridge like Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer. Maybe the last wave to Scotland will be at Gleneagles in a year’s time, as a captain rather than a player.
He’s not sure about the timing, but he knows what Scotland has given him. It’s not just his victories, it’s the near miss, too. You could argue that Turnberry 2009, when, aged 59, Watson lost to Stewart Cink in a play-off, was on a par with anything he had done before in this country, even though he didn’t win. “I think it extended my career to a degree,” he says. “It gave me an extra boost, an extra belief in myself.
“It certainly gave a lot of other people the same thing, which was the most important thing that came of that. Even though I didn’t win, I’ve got letters and e-mails from people galore that said: ‘Because of your performance, I quit on something and I’m going to start it up again, I’m not going to quit, I can do it’. Age is not a factor. It wasn’t just golfers who wrote to me. There were other people in other walks of life who said: ‘You gave me the encouragement to keep going or to start over with something I’d quit’. That was the best thing that came of 2009.
“I think, possibly, it might have helped enhance my status in the eyes of the current players. I mean, I scared those kids. I scared them. They looked at me and said ‘Who’s that old guy? He’s not supposed to be here. Can he still play like that?’ I got some street cred with the younger players, I certainly did.”
The younger players, like Jason Dufner. Yes, he is aware of the “Dufnering” internet phenomenon – the act of being slouched against the wall, hands by your side with a vacant expression, which was born when Dufner was photographed doing this in a class with students in Dallas earlier this year – but no, he hasn’t done it himself. Not yet. Dufner might persuade him when they get to Gleneagles – or maybe he will be too exhausted. Watson equated his go-to men to horses on a ranch. When it comes to using them frequently in the Ryder Cup, he says he’s going to ride those horses until they’re knackered. If that means others don’t play so much, then fine. That’s the plan. But plans change.
“We’re there to win. I remember European Ryder Cup captains and there were some players in their teams who didn’t play in the team matches. I won’t go that far, but I will assess the situation of how the players are playing and who are the best teams to put together. You wear out a horse until you can’t ride it anymore. Wear it out. The problem is that I was going to wear that horse out with [Paul] Azinger and [Payne] Stewart when we played the Ryder Cup in 1993. They were going to beat everybody; 5&4. And then they get beat 6&5 in the first round [it was 7&5 to Ian Woosnam and Bernhard Langer], so how’s my theory doing now? You have to change.
“I went to Roy Williams, the basketball coach, to get some tips on coaching an away game and he said: ‘Tom, I have a gameplan for every game and we practise it. We’re going to play this way and that way and, five minutes into the game, I throw it out the window and I coach by the seat of my pants’. And that’s why you’re there as a captain because there are going to be situations when the dynamics of the game changes and the key is can you make those decisions in the heat of the battle, can you make the right decisions? Not emotional decisions, but the best-informed decisions. That’s the key to being a good captain.”
Thirty nine years will separate his Open championship at Carnoustie and his captaincy at Gleneagles. It might be un-European to say it, but how fitting it would be if Watson’s last meaningful victory in golf happened in the same beloved land that gave him his first.