Thus is the earth at once a desert and a paradise, rich in secret hidden gardens, gardens inaccessible, but to which the craft leads us ever back, one day or another. Life may scatter us and keep us apart; it may even prevent us from thinking very often of one another; but we know that our comrades are somewhere "Out there"—where, one can hardly say—silent, forgotten, but deeply faithful. And when our path crosses theirs, they greet us with such manifest joy, shake us so gaily by the shoulders! Indeed we are accustomed to waiting.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars
It is nothing new or original to say that golf is played one stroke at a time. But it took me many years to realize it.
Prologue: A Father's Voice
Toward the end of the afternoon, Tom Watson sits in his office talking to a golf writer. The golf season has just ended. The golf writer is me. We have been talking for almost two hours. There is a thin skin of ice on the pond in the park across the street. Traffic is a muted sigh in the winter shadows of Kansas City. Christmas presents for his children are stacked neatly in a shopping bag at his feet. Watson's wariness of the press is famous, but he has been relaxed and generous, talking about the Ryder Cup team he will soon lead to Britain, about his life, career, children, heroes, even making self-deprecating jokes about his well-publicized putting woes. This pleases me, confirms my best hopes. Watson is forty-three, five years my senior, the best golfer of my generation, now a lion in winter. In my former life as a political journalist, it would have been deemed grossly unprofessional to admit I am my subject's fan. But golf, unlike politics, as Alister Mackenzie is supposed to have once said, is at least an honest game. I am Watson's fan because he played with such honesty and heart during his golden days, and because of how he conducts himself now that the glory has faded and his game seems almost mortal.
Sometimes during these conversations, I find myself unexpectedly wondering with pleasure how I got here. For me, a kid who tagged after his golf heroes and was lucky enough to grow up and be able to sit and talk with them, it's a dream job and a question rooted perhaps as much in philosophy as journalism. All philosophy begins in wonder, and the wonder of what Watson suddenly, intimately reveals of himself in our conversation is both thought-provoking and surprising. I ask if he can identify the worst moment of his career, and he responds by telling me about once rushing out of the locker room at the World Series of Golf, brushing off a boy seeking his autograph. The boy's father followed him and tapped him on the back.
"He looked me straight in the eye and said, 'I just want to tell you, Mr. Watson, what an asshole I think you are. My son was really a fan of yours.'" Watson shakes his head. "I couldn't believe it—how badly I felt, I mean." He falls silent, pursing his lower lip. Somewhere outside the building I can hear Christmas music playing, a slurry rendition of "Jingle Bells" fading away. There are writers around who would love to challenge Tom Watson's sincerity on this, question how such a trivial moment could possibly compare, say, to his heartbreaking loss to Seve Ballesteros at the '84 British Open at St. Andrews. A wayward two-iron shot at the infamous Road Hole cost him a record-tying sixth Open title and made the fiery Spaniard the new darling of the British masses. For a second or two, Watson stares at the running tape recorder, then shakes his head again. "I still feel bad about it," he says simply.
The thing is, I believe him. Watson could not believe what he says he believes—namely, that golf represents the most honorable of games—and feel otherwise. So I flip the coin—best to part on a cheerful note—and ask him for the best moment of his golf life, certain he will either say his famous shot-making duel against Nicklaus at Turnberry in '77 or his "miracle" chip-in at Pebble Beach in '82 to win the U.S. Open. "It's funny," he says, pausing again, "the greatest thrill I had may have been the day my father invited me to join him and a couple of his regular golf buddies at his club. I was so excited, really aching to show him what I could do. I guess I was maybe eleven or twelve." Watson, the former Stanford psychology student, studies me with those eyes that always look as if he's been out walking in a linksland wind. "Even now I think about that. It was a very powerful moment. My father means so much to me. I can always hear his voice in my head, telling me to keep my head still or make a good swing. I don't know if I ever felt that way again, you know?" He smiles somewhat wistfully, revealing the boyish gaps in his teeth. Turning off the tape recorder, I admit that I know what he means because I hear my father's voice, too.
Almost every day of my life.