It was late Sunday afternoon in a former potato field in western England. Tom Watson had spent the past three days watching his U.S. team fight its way back from a one-point deficit through two days of the Ryder Cup to a 15-13 victory against the Europeans. The Americans won 5.5 of the last six points in singles.
For Watson, it would be his last day at a Ryder Cup after four as a competitor and one as a captain.
That late afternoon in 1993 at The Belfry, Watson relied on the words of Teddy Roosevelt to express his thoughts. Roosevelt, visiting the Sorbonne in Paris in April 1910 a year after his presidency, was speaking to the French about citizenship in a republic. “The Man in the Arena” speech became a widely quoted classic.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
For Watson, Roosevelt’s words summed up not only the World Golf Hall of Famer’s career but the 1993 Ryder Cup, as well as the other biennial matches since the continental Europeans joined the British in 1979.
Clearly Lanny Wadkins, Tom Kite, Curtis Strange, Hal Sutton, Tom Lehman, Corey Pavin and Davis Love III could identify with Roosevelt’s words. All lost Ryder Cups as U.S. captains since Watson’s squad won at The Belfry in ’93.
Each of those U.S. captains had been “the man in the arena.” They had known the elation of winning major championships and also suffering as captain.
For Watson, his experience in the arena will be tapped one more time as a Ryder Cup captain in his beloved Scotland in 2014, his return to the matches after 21 years.
Watson, a Stanford graduate, is one of the most cerebral Ryder Cup captains on either side of the Atlantic. More of his Rooseveltian manner can be expected in the months leading up to the 2014 matches.
Late on the afternoon of Dec. 13, when Watson was named Ryder Cup captain, the 63-year-old sat in the basement of New York’s Empire State Building, talking with three reporters who stayed after the PGA of America’s announcement for any final thoughts of wisdom from the eight-time major champion.
One of the questions he was asked was whether there might have been more of a “hate to lose” quality in previous American Ryder Cup players than in the modern generation.
Watson hesitated. Not wanting to answer the question directly, he pushed it aside and responded to another question.
“One thing I do know: The amount of money that you make in the game right now – I’ve said it a bunch of times – that money corrupts desire, and I believe in that,” Watson said. “It softens the fall. It really does. I will always love Trevino’s quote. He said, “Pressure? Pressure? Pressure is playing for a $10 Nassau when you have five bucks in your pocket.”
Transitioning from Trevino to another great statesman, Winston Churchill, Watson said: “Play for more than you can afford to lose, and you’ll learn the game. Churchill was perfect at that.”
So we get Trevino and Churchill in the answer.
Watson believes so strongly in “The Man in the Arena” passage that to this day, when asked about the relevance to the Ryder Cup, Watson turned it around to his 2014 team.
“I’ve been in the arena,” Watson said. “I am in the arena. That gives me some street cred.”
I look forward to the ensuing months for quotes and thoughts from presidents, philosophers and witty golfers. And I look forward to learning more about Tom Watson all over again.