To this day Watson counts as close friends an extraordinary number of men who, like Tatum and legendary golfer Byron Nelson, are 10, 20, even 30 years older than he. At the same time Watson is close to only a handful of active Tour pros (Wadkins, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite come to mind). His wife, Linda, recalls attending a birthday party in New Orleans in the 1970s for former U.S. Open champion Ken Venturi. "We were, like, 25 years old, and everybody in the room was 40 or above," she says. "At dinner, Bob Rosburg said, 'Tom, how'd you get here?' And Tom said, 'In my Chrysler.' "
When asked about these friendships, Watson says kiddingly that "old people are better storytellers." But he plainly values the insights and judgment that accompany age. His own judgment, although fallible, benefits from a sense of obligation and discipline that was drummed into him by his father. Throw in the fact that he has lived his life within the leafy, Republican-dominated neighborhoods described by novelist Evan Connell in Mrs. Bridge, and Watson's conservatism seems preordained.
It was not. Watson's older brother, Ridge, general manager of a winery in Carmel Valley, Calif., is a former Peace Corps volunteer with a Thai wife and a view of the world that he describes as more "anarchic" than Tom's. His younger brother, John Marshall, is a New York interior designer and former actor who gleefully baits his brother on visits home. "The first thing we do at the airport is get in Tom's four-wheel-drive and argue," says John. "Which appalls the rest of the family, but it's fun." Even Linda, who was Tom's childhood sweetheart, rolls her eyes over the ideological gap in her marriage. "Yes, he does listen to Rush Limbaugh," she says playfully. "There's a big group of players who do, and I laugh at them all."
Ironically, as captain of America's most recent Ryder Cup team, Watson had to stamp out an embarrassing Ditto-head Rebellion, which threatened to inject Limbaugh's views into the biannual match with the professional golfers of Europe. On Sept. 20, 1993, Watson visited the White House with 11 other wealthy Republican golfers, who tugged at their ties and squirmed during a prematch send-off hosted by President Clinton, a golfing Democrat. Several players had threatened to boycott the ceremony because they found the higher marginal tax rate onerous. Furthermore, Payne Stewart had blurted to the press that Paul Azinger, son of a Vietnam veteran, didn't want "to shake the hand of a draft dodger."
The President ignored the widely quoted insults and warmly greeted the team in the Rose Garden, shaking hands down the line. Watson then gripped a golf club and said, "You know, Mr. President, the golf grip is a lot like politics. If you hold the club too far to the right, you're going to get in trouble on the left. If you hold it too far to the left, you're going to have trouble from the right. But if you hold it in the middle..."
Clinton, amid laughter, finished the thought: "...you'll get it just right!"
Watching Bill Clinton and Tom Watson stand shoulder to shoulder while camera flashes popped, one could only wonder what common ground they, as prominent baby boomers, might have found. For starters, they might have agreed that theirs was a generation forced to make personal decisions with divisive, polarizing consequences. Clinton's famous letter from Oxford, voicing his loathing for the way American military might was being applied in Vietnam, candidly weighed the cost to his political future if he followed his conscience. Two decades later Watson would struggle just as mightily with a different choice whether to sanction, by his silence, acts of bigotry in his own backyard. Hindsight tells us that the politician acted more forthrightly than the golfer, but hindsight rarely takes in all the factors influencing a life-defining decision.
In that regard, it's interesting to hear Watson reflect on his college years. It has been reported, inaccurately, that he marched against the Vietnam War. And he has long been teased for casting his first presidential ballot for George McGovern, a Vietnam dove. ("You're an idiot," Ray Watson told his son.) Less well-known is the general discomfort Watson felt at Stanford, where the verities of Kansas City's sheltered neighborhoods seemed under constant attack. "I was somewhat of a fish out of water," he says, "and yeah, I was unhappy at times."
Watson is remembered at Stanford as a somewhat solitary figure. A spring and summer golfer at home, he had to be prodded by golf coach Bud Finger to qualify for the team during his first autumn at Stanford. And although he was the Cardinal's No. 1 player for three years, he won only the Stanford Invitational and the Fresno State Classic.
Watson's only volunteered memories of this period involve his predawn drives down the coast to the Pebble Beach Golf Links, where the starter let him play free as a dew sweeper. On these spiritual excursions, Watson would fantasize he needed pars on the last three holes to win the U.S. Open—against Nicklaus, no less.