It would be hard for me to assign a time frame on when my love affair with Tom Watson actually started.
I can’t say that it was an immediate crush, but it was one that gradually built up over the years based on his great victories, but equally important how he handled his failures.
Sure, I remember his famous chip on the par-3 17th at Pebble Beach when he won the 1982 U.S. Open. But even before that, I remember the grace that he showed when he collapsed and lost the 1974 Open at Winged Foot.
I followed his career and rooted from a distance as he racked up eight major championships.
I attended my first British Open Championship at Turnberry in 2009. After the first round I was thinking how cool it was that Watson can still contend in a major. When he had the second-round lead I thought it was pretty impressive a guy his age can lead this tournament after 36 holes. Then when he was atop the leaderboard heading into the final round, it was like, can the old guy actually win this thing?
I left Turnberry midway through the final round and headed back to my hotel room because I wanted to see this historical feat through the eyes and voice of the legendary Peter Allis. Even for a veteran like Allis, the excitement was too much to contain as he openly rooted for Old Tom against his fellow countrymen and Stewart Cink, an American.
When Watson hit his second shot into No. 18, I gasped as the ball trickled over the back of the green. Everyone who ever held a golf club knew that the likelihood of a par was slim. When he finally missed his putt to force a playoff with Cink, we all knew it was over.
It was a sick feeling, almost the same as losing a loved one.
The post-round news conference saw an equally disconsolate media waiting for Watson. Sensing their despair, Watson opened the news conference by smiling and saying, “It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn’t it?”
The next day I sat a row behind him on the flight from Glasgow to London. He was approached by numerous autograph seekers during the flight. They brought The Times which had a headline “Cruel in the Sun” for Watson to sign. He was gracious and never turned down a request.
The flight attendant offered to stop the traffic, and he gently said, “Don’t worry about it, they are fine.”
There is toughness to this man that is legendary. But there is a softness that is very rare.
Thursday, I had the privilege to represent the PGA of America on NBC’s “Today” show. Tom and I joined Matt Lauer for the announcement that Watson will serve as the 2014 United States Ryder Cup captain.
It was weird. I found myself standing next to a man who I had idolized over the years, one who I considered my elder when, in fact, we are separated only by five years.
The case for Watson as a captain at Gleneagles in Scotland is pretty obvious. He won four of his five Open Championships in that country. In addition, he won three Senior British Opens there. Watson had a stellar 10-4-1 record as a Ryder Cup player.
His teams won three Ryder Cups in Europe.
Most impressively, it has been 20 years since the U.S. last won a Ryder Cup on foreign soil, and Tom Watson was the captain of that team in 1993 at The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England.
During the past year, I have reached out to former Ryder Cup captains as well as current PGA Tour players. The consensus is pretty unanimous. Watson is a fiery competitor who will devote all efforts to winning and do it in all of the right ways. He won’t be afraid to sit a player who is not playing well.
He will inspire players and possibly motivate them to a higher level of play.
Tweets in the past couple of days by the likes of Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley, Dustin Johnson and Brandt Snedeker expressed a desire and enthusiasm to play for a legend like Watson.
Even opposing players like Ireland’s Graeme McDowell said, “I know the PGA of America likes to pick them between 40 and 50 years old, a U.S. PGA champion. But, I would say they would change that rule if Tom Watson wants to captain the team in two years. That would be a fairly intimidating captain as a European player.”
It’s been a crazy and hectic week in New York. There was some criticism of the decision to pick Watson as a repeat captain given the fact that Larry Nelson, three-time major champion and Ryder Cup standout, has been repeatedly passed over. Some felt that 1991 PGA Champion David Toms should have been next.
In the end, this was about picking the best man to lead the United States in the Ryder Cup battle at Gleneagles. The U.S. will be underdogs. Based on our history in Europe, a victory could be Watson’s greatest challenge yet.
I can assure you this. Watson will give it his best shot, as elementary as that sounds.
Ted Bishop is PGA of America president and general manager and director of golf at The Legends Golf Club in Franklin. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.