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Tom Watson is worried about the future of the sport he loves so much.
The legendary golfer said he “foresees clouds on the horizon” as fewer and fewer people play the game. He attributed it in large part to “the time factor. With all the electronics they have in their pockets,” it’s hard for people to shut out the “e-mail, tweets and texts. And if you check it, you’re required to respond. So it takes four, five, six hours to play and people just don’t have that kind of time. That worries me.”
Watson, who will celebrate his 40th anniversary as a professional golfer this fall, is in Augusta, Ga., this week for the Masters tournament, the first round of which starts today.
The 61-year-old, whose riveting performance at the 2009 British Open, where he lost to Stewart Cink in a four-hole playoff at the age of 59, attributes his longevity to his ability to “watch and observe.”
Watson said: “The number-one player when I started was Jack Nicklaus. He was the best prepared of anybody and he knew how best to play the course.” He said Nicklaus would go to Augusta the week before everyone else and get out on the course, and then play again during the practice rounds prior to the official start of the tournament. “And he won six Masters.”
Watson also is an endless student of the game and eager to share his passion with others. Last week, he made an appearance at the Polo Ralph Lauren men’s flagship in New York to sign copies of his new book, “The Timeless Swing.”
Watson, whose swing has actually improved with age, is eager to share the lessons he’s learned with anyone willing to pick up a 5-iron. The book offers a step-by-step tutorial for newbies and experienced golfers alike, with tips on everything from club grip and the arc of the swing to proper spine angle. The book is a strong complement to last year’s DVD set, “Lessons of a Lifetime,” which showed video versions of many of the same instructions.
“With ‘The Timeless Swing’ and ‘Lessons of a Lifetime,’ I wanted to produce what I think is the proper way of doing things with a golf club,” Watson said. “These are things that I’ve gleaned from the lessons I received throughout my life. This will be my last hurrah for what I think a swing should be.”
Watson admitted that he “didn’t know how to swing properly until 1994. There was a long stretch when I just couldn’t hit it well. So I made a decision to think outside the box.” He learned to keep his spine angle consistent, and that led to him “hitting the ball straight and lower. It made the game really easy for me. That’s the secret — and it makes perfect sense.”
He credited pros such as Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, as well as Stan Thirsk, his teacher from the age of 11, for instilling in him a love of the game. “Stan has such a passion for the game, it’s infectious,” he said.
When Watson turned pro, he asked Thirsk what he should do when he went out on tour. The answer? “Watch and play with the best.”
That advice still holds true today, but the best players in 2011 have advantages Watson didn’t have when he started out, particularly the updated equipment.
“The ball goes quite a bit further,” he said. “I’m actually a proponent to make the ball go shorter, but I’m a dinosaur and that’ll never happen.”
On the other hand, the courses are in much better condition — “They’re like carpets” — and the greens are “very consistent.”
Other changes he’s seen in his career include the hefty purses available to professionals today. “The game has gotten much bigger with all the corporate involvement,” he said. “We’re playing for a lot more money. We’re spoiled rotten with all the perks that are given to us.”
Watson, who says he’s been blessed with “good genes” and has been fortunate to have escaped without serious injury, plans to continue to enjoy those perks as long as he can. After the Masters, there’s the British Open, a series of Champions Tour events and the Watson Challenge, a tournament in his hometown of Kansas City, Kan. “I’ll keep playing as long as I’m competitive and can play well when the chips are down.”
With Watson still such a stickler for fine form, what does he think of some of the younger stars whose swings are unorthodox, such as Bubba Watson? “Bubba never had a lesson. He plays by feel,” he said, indicating Bubba Watson’s “heart,” which he rates above mechanics.
As for that other signature of golf — the clothes — Watson is equally a stickler for the classic. He has been sponsored by Polo since 1993. “We had some people in the old days [who dressed pretty crazy]. It makes them stand out,” he said. “But it says ‘Look at me,’ not ‘Do I look good.’”