Exclusive: Tom Watson on the US Open

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Callaway legend Tom Watson talks exclusively to Tour Insider about the US Open, his love of Pebble Beach, why he hated links golf to start with, and his place within the game.

The first time I shot under par, I was 12 years old. I shot 71 at a short course in northern Michigan. The first time I shot under par at my home club, Kansas City Country Club, was when I was 13. I shot 67 and that was a special day. Around the same time I made my first hole-in-one, at the 2nd hole at Kansas City. That was special, too.

My motivation for becoming a Tour pro was that I loved the game and I wanted to compete against the very best. I enjoyed the competition as a kid and I had a great passion that was taught to me by my father and other people around me when I grew up. When I got onto the PGA Tour, I tried to work harder than anybody else out there to find out just how good I could be. I don’t practise as hard now for sure, but that motivation has never changed over the years.

I first realised I had something when I won the Kansas City Men’s Match Play when I was 14. That fuelled my dream that I could maybe become a pretty good golfer. On the back of that, I received a phone call one Monday morning from my teacher Stan Thirsk, the pro at Kansas City Country Club. He said, “Tom, would you like to come out and play with the pros today?” In those days, the local pros and their assistants would congregate somewhere on a Monday to play golf on their day off. That was my chance to play with Stan and show off against those guys. I wanted to be just like them. 

My swing was modelled on Jack Nicklaus’ technique. When I was 16, I played with Jack at an exhibition match in Topeka, Kansas. It was a cold day in March and I remember watching him hit these impressive high long-irons. I thought to myself, ‘Man, this is the way I want to swing a golf club’. I wasn’t a very good long-iron player at the time, so I went back to Stan and told him that I wanted a more upright swing. That’s how my swing evolved. I had a stronger grip and had a little more rounded backswing, so I switched to a weaker grip to help get my backswing a little steeper.

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The Open Championship at Turnberry in 1977 was a turning point for me. That was my favourite of my five Open wins and the one where I was playing my best, but it was more than that. Going head-to-head with Jack and winning that tournament gave me the confidence that I could play against the best players in the world and win. Up until that time, even though I’d won the Masters against Jack earlier that year and won a few other tournaments, I hadn’t had that watershed moment when I really felt as though I could play against the big boys and come out on top.

Learning how to win and how to close out majors takes time and experience. What happens is that, over time, you learn through the experience of playing under pressure how you tend to react in those situations. Early in my career, when I got into contention in a high pressure situation, I wanted to get it over with quickly so I played quickly. I learned to recognise when that was happening and then slow myself back down to the proper pace. You also learn how to manage golf courses better – make smarter decisions.

My first impression of links golf was that I didn’t like links golf at all. I played golf through the air – the American way. I liked to hit the ball very high and stop it quickly. And I certainly didn’t like the blind shots.

I acclimatised pretty quickly [Watson won the first Open he entered, beating Jack Newton in an 18-hole playoff at Carnoustie in 1975].

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The first time I played the Old Course was in 1978, and I really didn’t like it. It was too blind and there were too many bounces and variables. I didn’t like playing the game with so many variables. I liked to be in control. l didn’t grow to love links golf until just prior to the 1981 Open at Sandwich. My epiphany came during a wonderful series of rounds I had with my friend Sandy Tatum. We started out at Ballybunion on the west coast of Ireland and had a glorious time there. Then we flew over and played Old Prestwick and Troon in one day, before taking a helicopter up to Royal Dornoch. We played a morning round at Royal Dornoch in just beautiful conditions. After we played, the golf historian Donald Grant had organised a wonderful reception in the clubhouse. An hour-and-a-half later, the weather had turned. The wind was howling and the rain was coming down sideways. I looked at Sandy and said, “Let’s go play.” He said, “Just what I was thinking, I’ll go organise the caddies.” So instead of having 1,000 people following us like we had in the morning, we just went out the two of us with our two caddies and played in the rain and the wind. On the 16th hole, I said to Sandy, “This is about as much fun as I’ve ever had playing golf.” That’s when I truly fell in love with the links style of golf.

The standout victory of my career was... Well, I’m lucky enough to have had a few. My first victory at the Western Open in 1974 springs to mind, and my second Open at Turnberry. But winning the US Open in 1982 was very special because it was the tournament I wanted to win the most. So that’s the one that meant and still means the most to me. I’d won all eight majors by 1983, but I didn’t really learn how to swing until 1994. That’s when I learned to swing the club properly. After that, it was easy. Well, relatively easy! I found the secret: the shoulder plane, and making sure it is the same on the downswing as it is on your backswing – not dropping under too much and getting your right shoulder too low at impact. When I figured that out, I started hitting the ball beautifully.

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The Open will always have a special place in my heart. Being fortunate enough to win five times is the thing I’ll look back on most. There are a couple of Opens that I could have won and didn’t, and a couple that I did win and shouldn’t. But I had a great run and I have some wonderful memories of shots that I played during The Open Championships – both good shots and bad.I had my share of lucky bounces and bad bounces. It all goes with the territory of playing the game. It’s not a perfect game. And try as you might, you can’t make it a perfect game. Playing in the UK, in front of the crowds and how much they love, respect and understand the game – you always want to be appreciated by people who understand what you just did, and they do that the best in Great Britain.

The Old Course is still a good enough test for the modern player. If you don’t have any wind, you can definitely go low there, but there haven’t been too many Open Championships without wind. The most important scoring factor at St Andrews – as with all links golf courses – is the firmness of the turf. The course plays at its most difficult when it’s hard and running. And links courses almost always play firm. You have to hit quality golf shots to send the ball the correct distance.

I love the Old Course now, obviously. But it’s not my favourite course. That has to be Pebble Beach. I love the variety and the beauty of the course. And obviously the memories of winning there

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In golf, you really have to be honest with yourself. I understand my limitations and I know not to let my ego get in my way, particularly in terms of the clubs.

I used to hit versus the ones I have to hit now. It’s no use thinking, ‘I can hit that 8-iron 155 yards’. I can’t. ‘But, I used to be able to…’ No, Tom, you can’t. You have to have an honest assessment of yourself. Ego is a problem a lot of golfers suffer from. The best pros can hit their clubs to within two yards of the distance they want the ball to land. For amateurs it’s different. You have to temper it from the best shot you ever hit and work out your average distance with each club. That’s one of the things I stress to amateurs, especially with the use of laser rangefinders nowadays: find out how far you carry the ball with every club.

If you really want to be good, you need to be able to negotiate a golf course, and to do that you need to know how far you hit each club. In the air – not total distance. You ask people, ‘How far do you hit your 5-iron?’ and they say, ‘I hit it 180 yards,’ but that’s not how far they hit it in the air. They can’t carry it 180 yards, and most amateurs don’t seem to understand that. 

The greatest tip I can give you is one my father gave me. It was from the first putting lesson he ever gave me and he said to pick out a dimple in the middle of the back of the ball and hit that dimple with the middle of the putter, keeping your eyes on it as you swing through. It was and remains a great way to make sure your head stays still and to develop a consistent stroke.

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My finest hour

Watson’s memories of his US Open victory in 1982. 

Winning that US Open was a big lesson in perseverance. Going into that tournament I was playing some of the worst golf of my career. I was hitting the ball sideways.
I wasn’t even chipping that well. My putting was about the only thing I could rely on. But that gave me an idea. I’d already figured that I was going to miss a lot of greens that week, so I spent almost all my time ahead of that US Open practising chips and pitch shots around the greens.

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I managed to stay in contention over the first two rounds. I finished with three birdies on the last four holes on one day and three in the last five holes on the other to shoot even par both rounds. By all rights, I should have shot 77 or 78 and maybe missed the cut. I went to the practice tee and that perseverance kicked in. I hit balls for an hour and couldn’t find anything, then something finally clicked. I discovered that if I kept my arms and my body on the backswing tighter together, I could rotate through on the same plane and I started striping it. That changed everything. I turned to Bruce [Edwards, Watson’s caddie] and said, “I’ve got it!” I knew then that I could make it work.

I played very well the last two days and I made every putt on the Sunday. But it came down to that shot on 17.
I pulled my drive into the deep rough between the two bunkers on the left. The greens are like bowls at Pebble Beach. I hit a lot of shots from downslopes with similar lies and I’d practised that shot a lot. I remember Bruce saying to just get it close. But I’d practised that shot for hours and hours, so I was confident. I said, “I’m not going to get it close; I’m going to make it.” And I made it.

That shot meant more to me than any golf shot I ever made. The US Open was the one tournament I wanted to win the most, as an American and playing our national Open. Naturally it meant just a little bit more to me. It’s the benchmark of my career as far as what I wanted to do in the game.

Tom Watson: What’s in the Bag

Driver: Callaway Epic Flash Sub Zero

Woods: Callaway Epic Flash

Hybrids: Callaway Rogue

Utility iron: Callaway Apex

Irons: Callaway Apex 19 / X Forged Utility

Putter: Odyssey Versa 90 #7 Black

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Sarah Pyett