The Tournament of Champions at La Costa, on the Southern California coast, rivals the Hawaiian Open as the most popular stop on the PGA tour. It is worth winning a tournament just to get there. Tennis courts and exercise classes are available to the players' wives, and there are Jacuzzis, steam baths and massages for everybody. The golfers' expenses are paid by Mutual of New York, the sponsor, and nobody goes home early because there is no cut to miss. It is a place to wind down after the Masters and to make at least $2,250, no matter how badly one plays. In fact, the atmosphere is so relaxing that in the dozen years since the T of C has been scheduled within a week or two of the Masters, the Masters champion has never won it. Tom Watson, the hero of Augusta, was no exception. Last week he shot 74-73-69-76—292 and finished 26th in the field of 32. Jack Nicklaus, having had enough of second place, tied Bruce Lietzke at seven under, then beat him on the 3rd hole of sudden death.
Part of the problem for the Masters champion at La Costa is the press. Until the tournament gets under way, he is its prime target. The Watsons, Tom and Linda, arrived at La Costa at 10 o'clock Monday night, having flown from Atlanta to Los Angeles and driven south from there. The first call came at 7:30 Tuesday morning. Others followed. Tom was asked about his swing, his marriage, his childhood, his future—anything he wanted to talk about. But the one question that has dogged his interviews on and off since the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 1974, the question that he had to answer over and over again throughout the week at Augusta, even though he was playing one fine round after another, seemed finally to have been laid to rest. From now on Tom Watson can lose a golf tournament any way he likes, and nobody but a fool is going to suggest he choked. He has been put to the test by Nicklaus playing at his best, and his swing and his will have held firm. In the interview room at Augusta, Nicklaus was being asked whether something Ben Crenshaw had said about him ("We're not as scared of him as we used to be") had had anything to do with his shooting his final-round 66. Watson, who was standing in a corner, waiting his turn at the microphones, stepped forward. "Let me say something about that," he said. "I'm always afraid of this man."
"No, he's not," said Nicklaus, smiling. "He's not afraid of anybody. That's why he won."
In the caste system of American golf, Tom Watson was born a Brahmin. He grew up in Kansas City, Mo., the descendant, on both sides, of a long line of illustrious citizens. His prep school was Pembroke Country Day and his college was Stanford, where his father and his older brother Ridge had preceded him. The club where he learned to play golf, and where he caddied for his father and his father's friends, was the Kansas City Country Club, a WASP bastion of substance and conservatism. Though he is rumored to have voted for George McGovern in 1972, Tom is still a member and plays there whenever he is at home.
In another age Watson, like a Bob Jones or a Francis Ouimet, might have enjoyed a brief, brilliant amateur career and then retired to a life of order, property and privacy. Instead, he has chosen the transient existence of a touring pro.
"I don't care about money," he says in his thoughtful, measured way. "I'm just trying to play the best golf I can. I have a certain talent; I think it's a better-than-average talent. If I can get a variety of shots and start hitting the ball with more authority and a little bit lower...."
These days great talents are developed on the tour, not in the country clubs. Therefore, Tom and Linda Watson live in motels and out of suitcases. They eat meals in bad restaurants, and Tom smiles into cameras pointed at him by perfect strangers. He protects what privacy his life allows with a wall of reserve that is camouflaged by his redheaded, freckle-faced, gap-toothed good looks and a pleasant, modest manner.
"But he burns inside," says Bob Willits, Watson's partner in the Crosby Pro-Am this year. Robert Willits is a Kansas City businessman who is an old friend of Raymond E. Watson Jr., Tom's father. Bob Willits and Ray Watson, who was known as Ramey then, were scratch golfers in their younger days, Willits having been Missouri Amateur champion in 1947 and Watson having reached the fourth round of the National Amateur in 1950.
"Uncle" Bob Willits has known Tom since birth and was the one who nicknamed him Flytrap Finnegan when he was eight. Flytrap Finnegan, the World's Worst Caddie, was a comic-strip character who never stopped talking. "Tom yakked all the time," says Willits.
"That is untrue," says Watson. "The true version is I didn't talk at all. When I was a kid I was very quiet. But they named me Fly anyhow." To this day, if you follow Ray Watson as he accompanies Tom around a golf course, you will hear him mutter now and then, "Come on, Fly. Hit a good one."