Universally admired for his sportsmanship and good manners, Watson steered around controversy with one hand on the wheel and one on the roof. He won five British Open championships between 1975 and '83 without publicly weighing in on Thatcherism. He put on the green jacket of the Masters champion in '77 and '81, and if he wanted to chide the host club for its restrictive membership policies, he held his tongue. He won the '82 U.S. Open on California's Monterey Peninsula and somehow accepted his trophy without declaiming on the fate of the humpback whale.
Civility is a fragile flower. These days, Los Angeles Times columnist Larry Stewart calls Watson a "backstabber," while Jonathan Rand of the hometown Kansas City Star settles for "stuffed shirt." Golf writers, in his corner for two decades, edge away in print. A tabloid in England, where Watson was a hero until he declined to autograph a dinner menu for an opponent at a 1993 Ryder Cup banquet, ran the screaming banner, YOU'RE A DISGRACE, WATSON. And the mail! In '90, when he captured headlines by resigning from the Kansas City Country Club over its blackballing of a prospective Jewish member, the mail to Watson's office in Westwood, Kans., was heavy and, in the words of his business manager, "99 percent positive." Now, for writing a pair of confidential notes that may have cost a cheeky television commentator a week's work, Watson receives mail that is, at best, mixed—much of it condemning him as humorless and meddlesome.
The backlash stings. "It bothers me," Watson admits. "I don't have the thick skin of a politician."
The nature of Watson's hide may be pertinent. He likes to quote Winston Churchill, who said, "If you are not a liberal when you are 18, you have no heart; if you are not a conservative when you are 38, you have no brain." So some now ask: What has become of Watson's heart? His staunch advocacy of tradition and traditional values, once so praiseworthy, now strikes many as merely trendy. ("I'll be glad when he's over his Rush Limbaugh phase," says an acquaintance jokingly.) Oddest of all, there is a growing sense of Watson as a man estranged from his own generation. At 45, with two children at home and with his athleticism and vigor intact, he seems, at times, to be the Oldest Member.
The public has been aware of this grimmer, more austere Watson for less than two years. First there was Watson's harsh handling of the autograph-seeking Scottish golfer Sam Torrance at the Ryder Cup ("Menu-gate") 22 months ago. Next came Watson's criticism of comedian Bill Murray for what Watson and then-PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman considered inappropriate antics during the 1993 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Finally, and most tellingly, there was the "Gary McCord flap"—named for the part-time Tour player and mustachioed funnyman who lost his Masters TV gig this year after Watson, offended by on-air quips during the '94 tournament about "bikini wax" and "body bags," sent a handwritten demand to CBS director and producer Frank Chirkinian to "get rid of him, now."
But those who know Watson intimately insist he's not ready for the wing chair by the window. "He's not stoic, he's not humorless," says Bruce Edwards, Watson's caddie for the better part of 20 years. "But he's a shy guy who wants to let his clubs do the talking."
Edwards has been at Watson's side on many a Sunday, victory within reach; he has seen him try to hit the perfect shot over waste and fen. One time—Edwards thinks it was on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach during a Bing Crosby Pro-Am—Watson hooked a critical approach shot into the Pacific. And while another golfer might have dropped his club and turned away in disgust, Watson, his mouth a tight line, watched, without blinking or moving, the whole flight from impact to splashdown.
"Why didn't you react?" Edwards asked afterward.
Watson's reply: "Because that's my punishment."
These days, when he sees his boss taking punishment, Edwards rises to his defense. "Tom is the big brother I never had," he says. "He's shown me how to win—not just in golf but in life."