SI Vault
John Garrity
July 17, 1995
While golfing great Tom Watson remains a hero on the course, his way of looking at the world and his penchant for speaking out have turned him into a heavy off it
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July 17, 1995

Point Of View

While golfing great Tom Watson remains a hero on the course, his way of looking at the world and his penchant for speaking out have turned him into a heavy off it

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You could lose a painting at the Kansas City Country Club. The main hall of the clubhouse passes room after room filled with portraits in gilded frames—characters in pantaloons and ruffled collars who probably never lipped out a putt. But a certain portrait was not visible last week, and nobody at the club seemed to know anything about it. A painting of a champion golfer—late 20th century. A sometime member, in fact. Used to hang in the Tap Room.

"It might be up in the attic somewhere," said a young staff member, frowning with concentration.

"I haven't been here that long," said another with an apologetic smile.

Understandable. The portrait came down five years ago amid controversy. Touchy subject, really; the member resigned, the national press got its nose across the threshold, voices were raised...

History. By now, you thought, the portrait would be restored to its position of prominence. After all, the member was back in the fold, officially, as of June 27.

"Check in the golf building," suggested a young man in coat and tie. "I'm sure it's not in the clubhouse."

No matter, you assured him. You only wanted to see if the portrait was still a reasonable likeness.

Tom Watson was never a liberal. He may have looked like a liberal when he joined the PGA Tour in 1971, fresh from the glass-strewn and tear-gas-polluted quadrangles of Stanford. But a mustache and longish hair were not particularly bold statements in those times, and it was not unusual to see young men with longer hair than Watson's boarding the buses that left San Jose every week for the Oakland Induction Center. Even at Silverado Country Club, an hour up the road from the notorious University of California at Berkeley, facial hair and wind wings on a golfer hardly warranted a second look.

Lanny Wadkins, who would one day succeed Watson as captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team, has a clear memory of his friend's pro debut, at Silverado, and it's not the long-since-discarded mustache that stands out, nor Watson's views on world issues. It's the fact that Watson had gotten his playing card at the PGA Tour Qualifying School just the weekend before in Florida, had caught a plane for San Francisco on Sunday, had qualified to play at Silverado on Monday and had opened his pro career on Thursday and Friday with consecutive 68s. "Everybody noticed that," Wadkins says, speaking for his Tour peers. "Tom busted his butt to get there."

The Tom Watson who appeared that week at Silverado was a typical young golf professional, in the sense that ambition and resolve circumscribed his outlook. It's his own view that he entered a tunnel in 1971 and emerged sometime in the '80s, blinking and looking around in wonder at a world larger than the one he had come to dominate. He probably overstates his detachment—Watson is an avid newspaper reader and a man with strong opinions—but until his commitment to tournament golf waned, he struck observers as a gap-toothed huckleberry, the sort of Midwesterner you pictured, as golf historian Herbert Warren Wind put it, "sucking on a stem of grass as he heads for the fishing hole with a pole over his shoulder."

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