Feinstein: Tom Watson A True Champion

From his dominance on the course to his philanthropy off it, Watson's legacy is in good hands

John Feinstein
July 29, 2019 - 11:16 am
Tom Watson Masters

USA Today Images


I woke up early Saturday morning and went through my daily ritual: put on sweats, start the coffee, feed the cats, go down the driveway to get the paper, check my phone.

I saw I had an e-mail from Tom Watson and started to turn away from it. Watson often e-mails me and many of his friends who he describes as “libs” to explain why we are completely wrong in our political views. This one was different because it started, “Dear John.”
I opened it up to read. It was brief and to the point and made me smile and brush away a tear all at once. “I just wanted to give you a heads up before I announce it today that this will be my last Senior British Open. Indeed, I am grateful to all those people who have both helped and supported me for all these years. Especially those people who have the passion and understanding of the game as you do…Sincerely, Tom.”
I read the note a couple times, first to absorb the notion that Watson, who first played in and won the British (or as the Brits call it, “The Open Championship”) for the first time in 1975. Then to enjoy the last sentence because it meant a lot to me.
Watson won The Open five times—including his famous “Duel in the Sun” with Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977. He came heartbreakingly close to winning it a sixth time in 2009 at the age of 59, when a links-hop at 18 carried his perfectly-struck eight iron over the green and he missed a seven-foot par putt to win. He then lost in a playoff to Stewart Cink.
Had Watson won that day at Turnberry, he would have been the oldest man to win a major championship—by ELEVEN YEARS. I’ve often said that it would have been the second most stunning upset of my lifetime—behind only the Olympic hockey team’s win over the Soviet Union at Lake Placid in 1980.
Watson also won the Senior British Open three times—in 2003 (also at Turnberry) and in 2005 and 2007. He won at Turnberry with our mutual friend Neil Oxman (another of Watson’s “lib” friends) caddying for him because Bruce Edwards, who first caddied for Watson in 1973 was too sick, dying of ALS, to make the trip to Scotland. Tom and Neil took the flag from the 18th hole home to give to Bruce. The 18th hole flag is traditionally the caddy’s “trophy” after a win. Bruce’s home had dozens of flags from his wins with Watson on the walls and hanging from ceilings.
It was Oxman who best described the relationship between Tom and Bruce: “Closer than brothers.”
It was also Bruce who ultimately provided the link that pushed my relationship with Watson beyond source/reporter to friends.
I knew Bruce before I knew Tom. As I’ve written before, he was the first person I ever interviewed at a golf tournament. It was at the 1981 Memorial. The Washington Post had sent me up there to, as my boss described it, “find some stories,” to write before the Kemper Open—which had just moved to Washington—came to town the next week.
I arrived late Tuesday afternoon and was walking by the putting green when I spotted Bruce sitting on a stone wall that divided the green into two levels. I recognized him right away because Watson was the number one player in the world and he and Watson always walked down the fairway together in lockstep as if attached by an invisible string.
I introduced myself, gave him the reporters’—“Have you got a minute?” line and spent more than two hours talking to him. He was bright, funny, a natural story-teller and knew everything and everyone about what was going on in golf.
We became friends almost on the spot.
A year later, I did my first sit-down with Watson for a magazine piece I was writing for The Washington Post magazine. He, too, was a good storyteller, but—not surprisingly—a lot more guarded than Bruce.
In 1993, when I started researching “A Good Walk Spoiled,” I asked Watson if he would be willing to spend some time with me for the book. He was Ryder Cup captain that year and he was generous in giving me time and insights. Bruce, who served unofficially as an assistant captain, brought me further inside.
Tragically, it was Bruce’s illness that took our relationship to another level. Bruce was diagnosed in February 2003. I knew enough about ALS to know it was a death sentence and sent him a long note telling him if there was anything I could do to help, let me know. He wrote back a wrenching note telling me he intended to beat the disease. It was wrenching because I knew it wasn’t going to play out that way.
At the Masters that year, I sat on the porch in front of the clubhouse with Bruce and his new wife Marsha—they’d gotten married in Hawaii with Tom as best man and Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer part of the wedding party—and talked. Bruce was already struggling to be understood. ALS manifests in different ways: some people lose the use of their legs early; their words later. Bruce was the other way around.
I understood very clearly when he asked if I would write a book on his life; his career as a caddie; his relationship with Tom and this, his greatest battle. As I’ve written and said before, my first instinct was no—I don’t want to watch a friend die up close. And then I realized it was something I had to do. I owed it to Bruce.
I put a book I was working on with Red Auerbach on hold—fully aware of the irony of pushing a book on an 85-year-old to a backburner because I was racing time to write a book on a 48-year-old and we dug in.
I managed to get “Caddy For Life” into Bruce’s hands a week before he died in April of 2004. His fine motor skills were still such that he signed it for me—Marsha gave it to me at the funeral. Needless to say, I treasure it.
During the time I spent with Tom while researching the book, he talked often about how gratifying the response he and Bruce had gotten while trying to educate people about ALS and raise money for research. One day, near the end, he said to me: “The sad part is, when Bruce dies, we’ll lose all the momentum we’ve built for raising funds. He deserves a better legacy.”
Those words haunted me in the days after Bruce’s death. Tom was right, Bruce deserved a better legacy.
I had dinner with Tom a few months later when he came to Baltimore to play in a senior tournament. I told him I had thought about what he’d said and had an idea: a golf tournament in Bruce’s name with all the money raised going to ALS research. Tom was in from the first moment with just one caveat: I needed to do the asks to the celebs. “If I ask and they say yes, they’re going to want me to play in an event for them,” he said. “I just don’t have that kind of time.”
He was right of course. No one was likely to ask ME to play in their event. We have worked together since then on what we call “The Bruce” and have raised more than $7 million, all of which has gone to the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins because Watson is convinced Jeff Rothstein, the doctor who runs the center, is the scientist who will finally find the cure—almost 80 years after Lou Gehrig became the most famous person to die of ALS.
We’re still not close to that moment. Tom not only plays a major role in “The Bruce” every year, he speaks at ALS fundraisers all the time. When he does, he’s honest about the progress that’s been made. “We’ve found the right city,” he says. “But we aren’t even on the right block yet. We’re still searching.”
That’s why the note on Saturday meant so much to me—that he’d take the time to let me know his decision before the world knew. I didn’t even care that Golf Channel took credit for “breaking” the story. Okay, maybe I cared a little.
Sunday’s ending was far from perfect. A lengthy rain delay forced the R+A to put the players into threesomes in what is called a “horseshoe formation.” That means those near the back of the pack—Watson was tied for 55th place—tee off late and go off the 10th tee. It was the only way to finish the tournament on Sunday.
As a result, Watson’s last hole was the ninth—which is miles from the clubhouse at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s because it an old-fashioned nine holes out; nine holes in golf course.
“Terrible way for him to finish,” my friend Billy Andrade wrote to me. “Middle of the golf course in soaking rain with maybe 100 people out there watching. They should have just put him off first. No one would have complained.”
Billy was right, but golf’s never that way.
Even so, when Watson walked up the 18th—even with nine holes to play—the stands were packed and everyone was on their feet cheering. The two men he was playing with, Peter O’Malley and Gary Wostenholme, fell back to allow Watson to walk onto the green alone.
He looked tired to me, but was clearly energized by the crowd and the moment. He doffed his cap and they wouldn’t stop cheering. He walked to the middle of the green and bowed to one grandstand and then turned and bowed to the other. Then he clapped for them, knowing how much the British fans have adored him through the years. Finally, he blew kisses—something I don’t think I’ve ever seen him do.
Needless to say, I had tears in my eyes, and I know I wasn’t alone. Watson’s is one of the great careers in golf history, but he’s been so much more than a great golfer. He’s been everything that is good about the game—on and off the course.
The last two years have been difficult because his wife, Hilary, has been battling pancreatic cancer. She’s cancer-free now, but has been through all sorts of chemo, radiation and surgeries. Watson will be 70 in September and even though he can still compete—he was T-17 at the Senior U.S. Open earlier this summer and made the cut at Lytham—he is one of those rare athletes who would rather quit too soon than too late.
One thing I know for sure: he’ll continue the fight to find a cure for ALS. That says more about him than any of the championships he’s won—or lost. Maybe it’s corny, but I would describe him this way: he’s a true champion.
John Feinstein’s most recent work of fiction is, “The Prodigy," the story of a 17-year-old who has a chance to win the Masters but must fight off his father, agents and equipment reps who want to turn him into a human ATM machine. His next young adult mystery, “Benchwarmers,” will be published in late August. His latest non-fiction book, “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in the National Football League,” comes out in paperback in September. His website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com