Hate to be Rude: The Nelson-Watson bond
Fittingly, Tom Watson was presented the Byron Nelson Prize on Tuesday at the ceremony that opened the Dallas-area tournament named after the legendary Texas professional.
Like Ken Venturi, Watson was mentored by Nelson. Teacher and pupil got a lot of enjoyment out of the relationship. Watson won Nelson’s tournament four times in 1975-80 at Preston Trail, before the move to the current site, the TPC Four Seasons Las Colinas.
But that only scratches the surface of their bond.
“Having the opportunity to become a friend, stay at his house and learn something about my golf swing from him but more importantly about how to be as a person, that’s what I’m very grateful for,” said Watson, who follows Tom Lehman, Venturi and Arnold Palmer as recipients. “I got in the right profession, I guess, because I had a chance to meet up with one of the greats who was greater off the golf course than he was on.”
Think about that last sentence, referring to one of the best five or six golfers ever. Better as a person than as an athlete. We don’t hear that kind of stuff nearly enough anymore.
One of Watson’s favorite memories of Nelson involves a junior clinic at Preston Trail in the late ’70s. Watson introduced Nelson to the kids and asked him to use a driver and hit balls off the ground, with no tee. Watson gave him three balls and asked him to hit a fade, a draw and a straight ball.
Wearing no golf shoes and using Watson’s driver, Nelson delivered off the deck. First a draw, then a fade. Then Watson said, “OK, now a straight one. Byron, this is easy for you because no one hit the ball as straight as you.”
Nelson piped one down the middle and, with a sheepish grin, told the emcee, “What do you think about that, Watson?” Watson turned to the children and said, “You’ll never see anything better than that.”
Watson also recalled what Jack Nicklaus told him about Nelson. A young Nicklaus watched a Nelson clinic and was awestruck. At 70, he still is.
“Jack says to this day he never saw a man hit the ball so straight,” Watson said. “He said there was the caddie out there shagging balls and the caddie just didn’t move. Byron was hitting 1-irons, drivers, and one hop, hit, one hop, hit, like this. (Nicklaus) shook his head and he said there was nobody he saw hit the ball better than that.”
• Well, if nothing else, the last fortnight has told us what it takes to win on the PGA Tour: Shoot 133 on the weekend. Tim Clark (Players) and Adam Scott (Valero Texas Open) claimed long-awaited victories by doing so.
But even that isn’t enough sometimes. Rory McIlroy served 128 the weekend before. That’s 32 under – his weight.
That’s also ample reason for any country-club hotshot considering professional golf as a living to think more than twice.
• We interrupt the Tour’s three-week Texas Swing to bring you this public-service announcement: Texas has been the best breeding ground for great golfers of any state in the Union but, with apologies to Justin Leonard and Scott Verplank, has cooled off in recent years.
Thirteen players in the World Golf Hall of Fame are Texans – Nelson, Ben Hogan, Babe Zaharias, Ralph Guldahl, Lee Trevino, Kathy Whitworth, Jimmy Demaret, Betsy Rawls, Sandra Haynie, Lloyd Mangrum, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite and Jack Burke Jr. That doesn’t include a couple of other WGHOF members – famous Austin teacher Harvey Penick and Carol Mann, who has lived there much of her life and considers herself a Texan.
The haul is more than twice as many as the next-best state. But the pipeline isn’t what it once was. For an evidence sample, check the recent history at this week’s stop, the HP Byron Nelson Championship. Only one native Texan has won there in the past 17 years, and only two over the past quarter century.
One primary reason? Golf is a global game like never before and, as the world ranking suggests, keeps going that way. Recent Nelson winners have grown up in Sweden, Japan, Fiji, Spain, Australia and South Africa.
• These things run in cycles, but consider this a shift in the Tiger Woods Era: Players in their 20s have won more Tour titles in 2010 already than all of last year.
One reason is Woods. He hasn’t fired yet.
• What do I expect from Woods? I expect him to clear his head, heal his neck, win one of the summer Opens and someday break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors – though not by much.
It won’t be easy. His path toward that achievement used to look easy. But nothing is easy for him these days.
• I’m not so sure Woods needs another full-time teacher as much as he needs a second set of eyes seeing if he’s getting into desired swing positions.
Stay tuned. Whatever happens will be more than interesting.
Jeff Rude’s “Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday, the same day as his video show of the same name.