Tom Watson taking a shot from the rough at the 17th hole during the US Open in Pebble Beach, 1982

The Legend Looks Back

On the eve of his final Open Championship, Tom Watson shares a few lessons learned over a remarkable career

On July 13, 1975, Tom Watson was a young up-and-comer from Kansas, working the links at Carnoustie, in Scotland, during an 18-hole playoff at the Open Championship. He went shot for shot with Australian pro golfer Jack Newton, thinking play would be extended as Newton lined up the final putt. “I fully expected Jack to make his eight-footer or 10-footer on the last hole,” Watson says. “He hit a great putt. It looked like it was in—but he missed it. All of a sudden, there I was. I’d won the Open Championship in my first attempt.” And in his Glen plaid driving cap, he looked good doing it, too.

That hat, Watson says, was a nod to the “wonderful palette of professionals from the past who dressed nattily, from the Byron Nelsons and the Jimmy Demarets to the Tommy Bolts and Tom Weiskopfs.” Come July 2015, a stone’s throw from where the hat’s now displayed at the British Golf Museum, Watson will tee off for what you might call a victory lap: his final Open Championship appearance, at Scotland’s Old Course at St. Andrews.

When he’s stepping over the Swilcan Bridge on hole number 18—a friendly par 4 that leaves you with a handshake, “a way to say ‘Hurrah,’ to say ‘Good-bye’ and ‘See you again sometime,’” Watson says—he knows he’ll be misty-eyed with memories of the event and the people involved, and thinking about an early lesson in a lifetime of lessons learned: “It’s never over until the last putt is dropped.” Who knows, Watson may even replicate his performance at the 2009 Open, when the then 59-year-old shocked the field by taking Stewart Cink, 23 years his junior, to an extra-hole playoff before losing on the final day.

We asked the living legend to share some of the wisdom he has gleaned over the years.

Set the Bar High

Watson’s father gave him a knowledge of how to curve the ball, how to hit it high and hit it low. He also insisted that Watson “never be content with a missed shot,” as Watson recalls. In his dad’s eyes, only a ball struck dead center on the clubface could be considered a make.

Learn to Love the Links

In his early days, Watson hated the links style of play, the hard turf and run-up shots, preferring the plush American approach with lofted shots and sticky landings. “If I had had words of wisdom for me as a young Tom Watson, I would have said, ‘Get over your dislike for that running type of game, the uneven lies, the luck of the bounce. Get over it a little bit earlier than you did.’” Young Tom must have figured it out because he went on to win a total of five Open championships.

 

Perfection Is a Myth

When he was young, Watson learned by watching the best, analyzing the clubs more established professionals chose, how they would lay up short of trouble and minimize risk. “Early on I thought you had to play perfect golf to win,” Watson says. “In fact, there’s no such thing as perfect golf. Nobody plays perfect golf to win.”

 

Don’t Cave Under Pressure

There’s always a competitor who’s almost as good or better—a rival. For Watson, there was Jack Nicklaus. “When you assess your rivals, you assess how they play, how they manage the golf course, their own mannerisms, whether their mannerisms stay consistent or change,” Watson says. “And when [those mannerisms] change, you know they’re under a little bit of heat and the pressure’s getting to them to a certain degree. The people who fail are people who can’t deal with that pressure.”
  • A handoff with a smile; Tom Watson during the second round of the Open Championship in Turnberry, Scotland, in 1994 
  • The Stanford University graduate and legendary golfer looking dapper for a Ralph Lauren photo shoot in 1998
  • Thirty-two years after joining the PGA Tour, Watson won the Senior British Open on July 27, 2003
  • Winning and grinning in 2009; Watson counts 72 victories (including eight major championships) over the course of his career
  • In 2014, the renowned links-golf player made his 40th career start and captained the US team at the Ryder Cup in Scotland

Focus to Improve

“Concentrate on one thing at a time,” Watson says. “You build from one change to another and then you put it all together.” Because when that day comes and you do put it all together, you’ll see the difference.

 

Remember Edelweiss

“It’s all to do with rhythm. A lot of times it has to do with grip pressure, where you grip on a little too tightly or really too tightly and then your rhythm gets messed up,” Watson says. “Think of the word edelweiss.” Each part of the swing matches up to a syllable. “Take the club back on the ay sound,” he explains. The del sound represents the pause at the top of your swing, and your downswing sweeps through on weiss. “If it has only two syllables, like ay-weiss, that’s too quick,” he continues. “You have to have that third beat in there.”

 

Beware of Bad Advice

How do you recognize it? “Bad advice sticks out like a sore thumb,” Watson says. Fortunately, nothing you’ve just read falls into that category.
Tom Watson has worn Polo Golf since 1993.
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JAMES THORNE is a writer and editor based in New York City. His writing has appeared in Esquire, Narratively and Cool Hunting, among other publications.
  • COURTESY OF RALPH LAUREN CORPORATION
  • PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID CANNON
  • COURTESY OF RALPH LAUREN CORPORATION
  • PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID CANNON
  • COURTESY OF RALPH LAUREN CORPORATION
  • COURTESY OF RALPH LAUREN CORPORATION