PGA TOUR CHAMPIONS INSIDER
Watson has deep rooted connection to Japan and its passionate fans
June 10, 2020
By Bob McClellan, PGATOUR.COM
- June 10, 2020
- Tom Watson signs autographs for fans during the Mastercard Japan Championship.
Tom Watson made his debut in Japan at the Suntory Open in Chiba.
He’s not sure of the year. It was some time in the mid-1970s. What Watson does remember is it was hot, unbearably so, but he found himself refreshed from an unusual treat at the turn.
“The pearapples,” Watson said. “It’s a great fruit, a cross between a pear and an apple. They had them at the halfway house, and I ate it for the first time. That’s one of my lasting memories, how good those were. They were the sweetest and juiciest. They’re called nashi, n-a-s-h-i.”
Yes, Watson has other sweet memories of Japan, where he planned to play this week in the PGA TOUR Champions Mastercard Japan Championship, also in Chiba. Alas, the global pandemic forced the cancellation of the event, and thus deprived the Japanese people one more chance to see the legend in person.
Watson, now 70, had planned to play only a handful of times this year. He also mentioned a shoulder problem for which he’s seeking medical opinions, saying “I’m not sure what to do with it yet. It might preclude me from playing for a while.”
The Japanese, much like the British, developed an affinity for Watson and he for them over the course of his long career. He won on the Japan Tour twice, both times at the Dunlop Phoenix Open in Miyazaki. The tournament began in 1973 and still is one of the biggest events in the world. Watson is one of eight players to have won it multiple times; he holds the distinction of the most time between victories. He claimed the title in 1980 and again in 1997.
“That just means I was familiar with the course,” said Watson, who was a fixture at the event thanks to his friendship with the event founder, Muneyoshi Sato. “A lot of great players won that tournament. Seve Ballesteros, Johnny Miller.
“Mr. Sato really made it a point to try to bring international golf to the island of Kyushu and (its capital city) Miyazaki. His dream was to make it a huge international center. The golf tournament, the Dunlop Phoenix, was always a pillar of that dream of his.”
Sato eventually put a resort hotel, a waterpark and a Watson-designed golf course on the property. It still draws the best players in the world; Brooks Koepka won it in 2016 and ’17, and Tiger Woods is another of the event’s multiple winners.
Watson took to the people of Japan because of how they treated golf.
“The fans came out in great numbers, and they cheered differently,” said Watson, long a proponent of growing the game internationally. “When you missed a putt you could hear the people draw in their breath – ‘oooooh’ -- in unison. It was interesting. When the ball hit the bottom of the cup there was a clang – almost a bell sound -- they prided themselves on. When you sank a putt you could hear it drop.
“The local caddies, which I always used, they put the flagstick in and turned around bowed back down the fairway to the following group in honor and respect to say please proceed. That’s an indication of the type of respect the people in Japan have. I’ve always enjoyed that.”
Watson said he has been laying low during the COVID pandemic, exercising social distancing though managing to play a few rounds of golf in Texas, where courses have remained open with some restrictions.
He said he doesn’t expect any of the pros on the PGA TOUR and PGA TOUR Champions to struggle to get back in the swing of things. Watson said the guys will be firing on all cylinders this week at the PGA TOUR’s first post-pandemic event, the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Forth Worth, Texas. The event also includes a handful of Champions Tour regulars who either are past champions at Colonial (David Frost, Tom Lehman, Olin Browne) or sponsor’s exemptions (Bernhard Langer, Scott McCarron, Steve Stricker).
As far as whether fans will see him the rest of the year, Watson couldn’t say.
“I’m still trying to find out about the shoulder and what the issue is,” Watson said.