"In many respects Stanford was disappointing to me," Watson says. His name is attached to an annual benefit tournament for the Stanford golf team, but he has not attended for several years. His college teammates say that when they approach Watson at tournaments, he is invariably gracious but distant. And they are puzzled by the grumpiness of his recent pronouncements. "I feel as if Tom's really missing something, not getting together with old friends to reminisce," says Clem Richardson, who roomed with Watson on college golf trips. "But he seems restricted, confined. I don't know...maybe we represent something that he'd sooner forget."
Taking it as far as it will go, one might argue that Watson, uncomfortable with the deep antagonisms of his time, resigned from his generation and adopted the values and viewpoints of his father's peers, the World War II and Korean War generations.
"Where is common sense?" he says. "We're trying to teach this younger generation the right values, but we see institutions breaking those values down. I'm not talking in a religious sense, but hey, it's O.K. to teach the Golden Rule in schools. It's not a religious rule, it's a human rule."
Watson always seeks the middle ground. He likes Rush Limbaugh, but he also listens to Cokie Roberts and National Public Radio. He disarms critics with contrarian positions (he supports the legalization of recreational drugs) and unexpected opinions ("I think Clinton's doing a heck of a job as a caretaker President"). He reads several newspapers a day, consumes letters to the editor like candy and parks the television on CNN or C-SPAN. Tell Watson you just returned from a Mexican vacation, and he'll ask what you think of the latest developments in the PRI-Salinas scandals.
"I think he's a person with a highly developed critical nature," says Jones, the golf course designer. "And that can occasionally be misinterpreted, when something isn't diplomatically stated."
The middle ground is where Watson lives. His family's home of 17 years—an unspectacular two-level with a swimming pool in the backyard and neighbors close by—is in the middle of a city that thinks of itself as "the heart of America" and serves as a test market for companies pursuing the "average consumer." His just-completed country house, 25 miles away in rural Kansas, looks out on a fishing hole and is served by gravel roads. Asked why he has never followed the example of most Tour pros and moved to a warm-winter climate, he looks puzzled and says, "Friends. Family. Both sets of parents live here. My high school friends still live here. What would I want to move away from them for?"
Reminded that people do make such moves, he shakes his head and laughs. "They're fools. I think they're foolish."
The problem with criticizing Watson is that he knows himself better than you know him. In the late '70s, when he was winning four or five tournaments a year, Watson heard ad nauseam that he fussed too much with his swing, that he made golf harder than it had to be. He countered that his swing was not sound—as evidenced by the number of times he had to play around trees and from behind cart paths. Almost two decades later, every round he plays is vindication, because from tee to green he is a better ball striker than he was in his prime.
The problem with Watson criticizing Watson is that he shows no mercy. Faced with the erosion of his putting skills over the last decade, Watson has pursued his lost stroke with a passion bordering on delirium. He is convinced his misses derive from a faulty setup or swing-path malignancy, so he shies away from gimmicks like the long putter or the cross-handed grip.
Mark McCormack, founder and CEO of the International Management Group, recalls the same thing happening to his client Arnold Palmer. "Arnold putted cross-handed on the back nine at Turnberry during the 1977 British Open, and he shot a 29," says McCormack. "The reason he wouldn't stay with it was pride. He thought he was strong mentally and shouldn't let putting conquer him. I think Tom's the same way."