The effects of his session with Nelson began to show almost immediately. A month later he won a tournament in Japan, and then in January there was the victory at the Crosby—a 14-under-par 273, which beat Tony Jacklin by a stroke and set a tournament scoring record. Watson allowed himself a "Hot damn!" of happiness. The next week he set another scoring record in winning the Andy Williams Open in San Diego—19 under par. Then, at the Hawaiian Open his hot streak and his string of 10 subpar rounds ended. He finished fifth, and Bruce Lietzke took over the spotlight.
In the period between Hawaii and the Tournament Players Championship at Sawgrass, a little more than a month, the new swing in which Watson had so much confidence early in the year began to falter. He blew a three-stroke lead in the final round at Sawgrass and the next week lost his four-stroke lead at the Heritage Classic at Harbour Town on the front nine the last day. Both tournaments were nationally televised. No matter that he was the tour's leading money winner, or that he had two wins, a second, a fourth and two fifths. People began to write him off, and "choke," that ugly word, popped up everywhere.
To Watson's mind the loss at Sawgrass was inevitable because he had not been playing well during the week. His only surprise was that he was leading the tournament. "I didn't feel I'd lost anything because I wasn't playing well enough to win. I didn't deserve to win," he said last week. "At the Heritage, though, I was playing pretty good and I was pretty dejected."
When reporters got tired of asking Watson about choking, they asked his colleagues. "I don't think he chokes," said Crenshaw after the third round at Augusta. "My opinion is he's working on his swing all the time. He tries something, and it looks like he's choking. He tries to hit it right to left, or left to right. He's learning how to play the game. I have a lot of respect for him."
Bud Finger, the golf coach at Stanford when Watson was there, said recently, "He was always tearing his swing apart and putting it back together to find out what was wrong with it."
The learning process made Watson an erratic college player. In a match against the University of California he trailed his opponent, Artie McNickle, by three shots with four holes to go, whereupon he scored an eagle and three birdies. On the other hand, said a teammate, "He'd be three, four or five under par and then suddenly make an eight. He was a dedicated player who practiced a lot but couldn't hold a lead."
Watson, who is 27, is a late bloomer—but then so was Ben Hogan. Watson's solid swing and his intelligent approach to the game have attracted attention ever since he surfaced at the Hawaiian Open in 1973 and then blew a three-stroke lead in the last round. But it was his third round at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 1974 that gave substance to his promise. Harry W. Easterly Jr., now the president of the U.S. Golf Association, was referee that day, and he called it the best and most exciting round of competitive golf he had ever witnessed. Tom shot a 36-33—69, one of only seven subpar rounds of the 429 rounds that were played over the demanding course that week, and he led Hale Irwin by a stroke. The next day he shot 41 on the back nine for a 79 and finished tied for fifth.
At the Open at Medinah the next year Watson shot a record-tying 67-68—135 for the first two rounds and a 78-77—155 for the last two to finish ninth.
"I went into Medinah playing terribly," he says. "I manufactured a swing that held up for two rounds, but that was it. At Winged Foot the same thing. I went in there playing absolutely awful. But I thought it out pretty well. I said to myself that on that course I wasn't going to allow myself to miss any greens on the same side the pin was on. If the pin was on the left side, I knew there was no way to get it up and down from that side. I hit eight greens in regulation the first round and shot 73, but I followed my game plan perfectly—I missed the greens to the right when the pin was on the left, chipped it up close and putted well. In the second round I made an adjustment in my swing and started hitting the ball straighter, but the last round the swing fell apart.
"It was a disheartening experience," he says, "but being rational, I couldn't say, 'You played well enough to win,' because I hadn't. There have been times when I've been down, but, on the other hand, when I'm down on myself I still try. I try to make myself try. That's one of the things Byron Nelson said when he retired. They asked him why, and he said, 'Because I had to try to try.' I still have to desire to try."