Commentary

Watson shares secret to Turnberry run

Originally Published: June 7, 2010
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

Tom WatsonAndrew Redington/Getty ImagesTom Watson's approach shot on the 18th hole at Turnberry during regulation play just skidded off the back of the green. Watson made bogey when a par would have made him the oldest major champion by 11 years.

When the U.S. Open is held at Pebble Beach Golf Links for a fifth time later this month, Tom Watson will be in the field for a fifth time.

Following appearances at Pebble in 1972, 1982, 1992 and 2000 -- the second of which stands as his lone Open victory -- Watson received a special exemption from the USGA to compete in this year's event.

It will hardly be a farewell party.

Watson, of course, came within inches of winning last year's Open Championship at Turnberry and also contended into the weekend at Augusta National two months ago.

The eight-time major champion recently sat on the ESPN.com Hot Seat to discuss his love affair with the upcoming venue, whether he can contend again and how at age 60 he's still able to hang with the world's elite golfers on some of the biggest stages.

Q: When did you find out that the USGA was going to give you a special exemption into the upcoming U.S. Open?
A: I found out just prior to the Masters that I was going to receive it and that I was going to get a call from Mr. [Jim] Hyler to confirm it, which I did, and the announcement came the Monday after the Masters.

Q: Were you expecting it? How pleased were you to receive it?
A: First of all, I was very excited to get it, because of the history that I've had at Pebble Beach. It's my favorite course in the world. I have a long history, starting back in 1967 when I first played the golf course. In four years at Stanford, I played it a dozen times. [I won] my only U.S. Open there in 1982. Over the years, I've just had so many wonderful experiences and great memories there.

[+] EnlargeTom Watson
Andrew Redington/Getty ImagesTom Watson -- with son Michael, who caddied for his father -- tied for 18th at the 2010 Masters.

Q: What do you remember from that first experience of playing Pebble?
A: I think I was 17. I remember struggling to break 80 [laughs]. I always keep my scores and in four years of playing there when I was going to Stanford, I never broke 75.

I always tell this story: The starter there at Pebble Beach befriended me. His name was Ray Parga. I used to go down there first thing Saturday morning, I'd be first off. He'd let me on, wouldn't charge me the huge greens fee, which I think back then was $10 or $15, something like that. I played by myself and enjoyed the serenity of playing Pebble Beach and trying to shoot a score.

And without fail, I'd be way over par and coming into the 15th hole, I'd say, 'OK, let's just get it together and par the last four holes.' I sort of play-acted that I was in a tournament and I had to play the last four holes in even par to win. Back in those days, I pretended I was playing in the U.S. Open against Jack Nicklaus.

Q: At that point, when you weren't breaking 75, did you enjoy the course as much as you do now?
A: I did, sure. You know, it's a great combination of land and sea. The variety of the holes is great. You have the short holes, like the third and fourth holes -- very short par-4s. And you have the greatest stretch of par-4s in the world in 8, 9 and 10. Then you finish at 17, which has the smallest green for that length of shot of any par-3 in the world, then 18, with out of bounds right and water left. It's all you can do to not have a disaster on that golf course.

Q: When you think back to 1982, what goes through your mind?
A: What goes through my mind is obviously the chip shot that I holed on the 17th hole. That's kind of the first thing that comes to mind. But in the background of that is when I entered into the tournament that week, I gave myself no chance to win. Zero. I was hitting the ball sideways. I couldn't find it. I just struggled and struggled to find a swing that was going to work.

So in the practice rounds, I practiced a lot of chipping around the greens -- out of the rough and the downhill lies that you so often had when you missed the greens. I mean, I was just hoping that I would make the cut. I wasn't even thinking that I would have a chance to win as poorly as I was driving the ball and doing just about everything else.

But strange things happen sometimes in golf. First two rounds I played terribly and struggled until the last four or five holes. Both the first and second days, I finished 3-under par on those last five holes to get back to even par for the round. It kept me in the tournament. On Friday, I went back out to practice on the range to find something that was going to work, and I found something. I made an adjustment to my backswing and all of a sudden, I started hitting the ball straight.

I played very well the last two rounds. Of course, the last round was one of those rounds where I made just about every putt I looked at, but still had to struggle to win the golf tournament.

Q: Can you rank your major victories? And if so, how does that one rank?
A: No, I don't rank them. But it was the tournament I wanted to win the most. Our national Open. I have a long history playing in the USGA championships.

Really my father piqued my interest in the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur, because he played in the U.S. Amateur and he loved the history of it. He prided himself on knowing the U.S. Open champions. From start to finish, he knew them from 1895 on. We used to play a game where I would test him out. I'd say, 'Who was the '17 U.S. Open champ? Or who was the '36 U.S. Open champ?' He would know 'em all.

Q: You contended at the Open Championship last year; you contended at the Masters this year. I guess my question for you is: How?
A: Well, there are courses for horses, I guess you might say. Going into Turnberry, I just thought, 'I hope I can do well, maybe make the cut and finish the tournament.'

I wasn't putting very well. My first practice round on Monday kind of confirmed that. Early in my second practice round, though, I made an adjustment on my putting stroke and I started holing everything. I was hitting the ball well, then started holing everything. Wednesday's practice round, the day before the tournament, everything was clicking, and I said, 'I know I can play this golf course. I know it.'

I'd played it more times in major championships than anyone else who was playing there, so I had an experience advantage over everybody else. I thought if I got off to a good start on Thursday, knowing the wind was going to die, which it did -- then picked up on Friday, Saturday and Sunday -- that I had a game plan set. I knew around even par was probably going to win the tournament. I got off to a great start, had a little bit of a cushion with that 65 in the opening round and basically just hung in there.

Obviously, the last hole I had a chance to win the tournament, but it just didn't turn out to be there.

Q: You talk about courses for horses, but Augusta National isn't exactly a place that is tailor-made for your game right now.
A: No, it's not. At Augusta, I played a very good first round, hit the ball pretty well although I got the ball up and down five holes in a row for pars starting at No. 10. That was the meat of my round, where I didn't lose my good play -- the birdies that I had previously made -- and I finished strong, too, with three birdies in my last four holes to shoot 67.

But I kind of played normally my last three rounds -- a 74 and a pair of 73s. It is a tough course for me. I'm going into greens with longer clubs that just aren't designed to be playing into those greens.

Q: Can you contend at Pebble Beach?
A: I think I can. They've added length to the ninth hole, which is one hole that really concerns me -- 10 and 13 don't concern me nearly as much as 9. It's a very small green, there's no lay-up there and if I hit the drive to the top of the hill, then I'm going into that green with a long iron -- could even be a hybrid or even 3-wood. Needless to say, you have to be super accurate with that long club into the green, especially with as firm as those greens are going to be.

Q: Tell me about your instructional DVD. What can fans expect to learn from it?
A: Well, I'll give you a little history on it. The reason I wanted to do one -- actually, I've been thinking about it for three or four years, but time is getting short as far as being able to swing the golf club on video and swing it well so that people can get an understanding of what my golf swing is like.

I wanted to put my thoughts down so there's a legacy that says this is what I think about the golf game; this is how I think it should be played. Basically, it's for my son Michael. Hey, this is what your old man thinks about the game. There are just certain things that are important. It was designed to thank the people whom I've learned from over the years. That's why it's called "Lessons of a Lifetime."

These are the lessons and thoughts and words and pictures of the people before me. Like Byron Nelson and Stan Thirsk and my dad. Great teachers such as Butch Harmon and David Leadbetter. I've gleaned a lot of information over the years trying to improve my golf swing and the way I play the game. I've learned from these people and I want to give them credit, which I do during the video.

Q: Is there anything you can still learn from it yourself?
A: Oh yeah. No question. I think I have to credit that with my success at the British Open this past year at Turnberry, because I started the process of doing this, of putting my thoughts down in June with Terry Jastrow, who was the director of ABC's golf telecasts for 12 years. We got together for three days and we created a very extensive outline of the shoot and the ideas that I wanted to convey.

It's very similar to when I do my clinics in front of people. I try to teach them what I know about the swing. And we did this, of course, in greater depth. But whenever I do the clinics or this video, it makes me think in terms of what I should be thinking about when I make the golf swing. I think that helped me discard some of the superfluous thought that sometimes I get when I swing the golf club and just concentrate on what I know. It makes my golf swing work.

This is what "Lessons of a Lifetime" will do.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.