Watson's success in Scotland could be an X-factor
September 24, 2014
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
- U.S. Captain Tom Watson owns four Open Championship titles, all of which he won in Scotland. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
GLENEAGLES, Scotland -- Drive 46 miles to the east and you'll find Carnoustie, the site of Tom Watson's first major victory, the 1975 Open Championship.
Seventy-seven miles to the southeast is Muirfield, another major triumph. Nearly equal distance to the southwest is Troon. Yes, another Open win.
Drive a little farther and you'll hit Turnberry, where in 1977, Watson beat Jack Nicklaus in the Duel in the Sun, then cried tears of happiness when he heard the bagpipes swirl that night. In 2009, he chased history at age 59, contending for the Open title and leaving his fans crying tears of disappointment after he came up short on the 72nd hole.
Four Open wins. One legendary near-miss. Three Senior Open wins. Scotland has been good to Tom Watson and his Hall of Fame golfing career -- and now he finds himself in the epicenter of those triumphs as the captain of Team USA this week at Gleneagles.
Having turned 65 earlier this month, he is the oldest captain in Ryder Cup history, and perhaps the most popular visiting captain of all time. His love affair with Scotland and its people have been well-chronicled and it factored into the PGA of America's decision to tab him as the leader of a U.S. team, one that has lost seven of the last nine Ryder Cups and enters this one in the rare position of underdog.
In making the announcement of Watson nearly two years ago, PGA of America president Ted Bishop noted "how revered this gentleman is in Scotland ... he's got a tremendous understanding of the culture, the country and its people."
So does any of that matter this week at an event that fuels the passion of European golf fans like no other? Will the locals, in other words, take it easy on Tom and his boys out of respect for the man whom they've come to embrace as one of their own?
"Not. In. The. Least," Watson replied.
2014 Ryder Cup Preview
Perhaps it didn't sound quite that staccato, but Watson wanted to emphasize that national -- and in this case, European -- pride trumps any warm fuzzies for an American golfing icon.
"What makes the Ryder Cup so great," Watson said, "is the partisan nature of it. The crowds here are wonderful -- the singing, cheering. It's something special."
While there has been much discussion this week regarding Europe's template for success, players wearing targets, and Rickie Fowler's USA haircut, the Watson-Scotland connection is one of America's potential X-factors. How much of an impact, if any, it will play once competition begins on Friday remains to be seen.
After all, Watson will spend most of his time driving a golf cart, floating between matches. Once he decides on his pairings and sends his players onto the course, the rest is out of his hands.
But his knowledge and success on Scottish courses -- even a non-links course such as Gleneagles -- could come in handy in the American team room. And it's not just his three first-time Ryder Cuppers who will benefit.
"I'm just now learning how to win in Scotland," said Phil Mickelson, who won The Open Championship at Muirfield last year the week after winning the Scottish Open. "But we have a captain that's known how to win here for many decades, and we're hopefully going to take some of his leadership and get us there."
Zach Johnson said Watson has been "beautiful to be around" this week.
"He's got a lot of sage advice and wisdom that I think we can certainly dig into and maybe learn from," Johnson said. "And then you compound that with the fact that we are playing in a country that he's had some success in, to put it mildly, I think it's terrific."
European captain Paul McGinley grew up in Ireland, which put him close enough to follow Watson's exploits across the North Channel. As a young boy who played golf, McGinley found himself mesmerized by Watson's success in Scotland.
"He was my boyhood hero growing up," McGinley said. "I was a huge Tom Watson fan and I still am."
When McGinley came to America for college, it was at U.S. International University in San Diego, where he became an All-American. Whenever Watson was in town for the PGA TOUR event, McGinley would beg off of work at the driving range so he could watch him practice. Eventually, they would play in the same tournament, the 2001 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club.
That week, McGinley went up to Watson and asked if they could play a practice round together.
"Irishmen," replied Watson, "are always welcome in my company."
McGinley, recalling the story on Wednesday, said, "Those words were just so heartfelt and it was great. It was a great time and we've gotten on very well since. He's a guy I have huge respect for as a human being as well as everything else."
Essential Tom Watson
Watson believes his affinity for Scotland didn't just start with his first Open win. It began as a child when he started reading golf history and ran across stories about Old Tom Morris and his contemporaries.
"They played 12, 15 rounds for one match, for 500 pounds. It was an enormous amount of money," Watson said. "The game of golf evolved from that. There's a certain element in me that I feel like I'm part Scottish that way. I love the game so much and I think the reason is the reading of the history when I was a young boy."
He's not a young boy any more, of course. He's 65 and trying to pull off the same task that he did when he was 44 -- lead the U.S. team to a Ryder Cup victory on foreign soil. Since the 1993 win in England, no American team has won outside its border.
It won't be easy this week. The Europeans have found the formula for success in this environment, and they will have the support of a Scottish crowd that hasn't seen a Ryder Cup played in its country since 1973. Watson will have the respect from his many fans here, but this week their support will go elsewhere.
But America knows a thing or two about winning Ryder Cups on X-factors. Ben Crenshaw had a feeling in 1999, and it led to the rally at Brookline.
Tom Watson knows a thing or two about winning in Scotland. Perhaps he'll have a similar feeling this weekend.