It was, I am almost certain, the very last time Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson were ever paired together as the two leaders of a PGA Tour tournament. After two rounds of the USF&G Classic in New Orleans in 1991, I think it was that Jack led at -7 and Tom was in second place at -5.
I had wanted to wait to write this until I could dig up the actual column I wrote about it for Gambit New Orleans Weekly, but my files from numerous moves are now too jumbled in the attic and I couldn’t lay my hands on it, although I know it is up there. Anyway, this account is thus from memory rather than from print, so the quotes won’t be exact — but I WILL find the real quotes and precise details at some point — soon, I hope.
But before Watson’s near-triumph at the Open Championship fades too far into the past, and thus while interest in him is high, here’s what I remember.
I was still a fairly young reporter, just 27. The tourney was held at my home course, English Turn, designed by Nicklaus himself. The ground rules for press were that players in the men’s grill area of the locker room were available to be approached for interviews. I probably should have avoided the grill, because the year before I had been greeted by a somewhat grumpy Hubert Green and Fuzzy Zoeller in the same place before both of them eased up and gave me a reasonably cordial interview, with Zoeller throwing in some biting wisecracks, as was his wont.
Anyway, a half hour earlier than the episode I recount here, the grill had been absolutely full of players. And now this was still nearly an hour before the two leaders were scheduled to tee off, and when I took one last look into the grill before heading outside to get a first-hand feel for the early action, lo and behold, there were Watson and Nicklaus sitting together at the table nearest the door. Nicklaus was and is my favorite athlete, ever, so I was a little nervous about approaching them. So I sort of sidled up, wondering if I should bother them. I started to say “Excuse me” when, suddenly, I realized that the three of us were utterly alone in the room. I guess what happened was that all the other pros cleared out in order to give Nicklaus and Watson their privacy on the occasion of this now-rare eventuality of the two fierce competitors but great friends, both past their prime — Nicklaus at 51, Watson at 41 and with only one win of any kind in his past seven years or so — finding themselves in the lead again as in olden days. But as I realized that I, too, ought to grant tem their pre-round private confab, it was too late: The word “Excuse…” was already out of my mouth, only to be left hanging in the air.
Now Watson was never known for great personal warmth — decency and honor, yes, but warmth, no. He looked a bit annoyed, and Nicklaus too looked, just for an instant, just slightly put out. But then Nicklaus, seeing that I looked a bit stricken and that I felt awkward, very quickly and relaxedly said, pointing to another chair at their table: “Well, sit down. What can we do for you?” I looked at Watson and, following Nicklaus’ lead, he sort of smiled and said something quick to put me more at ease.
So I asked a few very quick questions, probably utterly obvious ones, about what it felt like ahead of time to be preparing to revisit what had once been such a common occurrence. And what I remember to this day was the attention each of them gave to my questions and their short answers. They didn’t just give me boilerplate; they both gave me very matter-of-fact but well-thought-through answers, albeit brief ones. In short, they both treated me with plenty of respect, even though I had unwittingly interrupted a nice personal visit the two apparently had been having. I think it was Watson who said something like, “Look, we’re both going out there to beat each other. That’s what we do. We’re not out there thinking about the past.”
When the short interview was over, I thanked them both profusely. What I remember was that by that time they both had become so gracious that they either said, or implied, something along the lines of thanking ME for my interest.
These were good, decent men.
Unfortunately, their round wasn’t very good. I followed them shot for shot and step for step around all 18 holes. Both of them kept striking their full shots wonderfully, but they missed putt after putt after putt. They both fell from the lead rather quickly. And that was just the third round, by the end of the four-round tournament, Watson had fallen to a tie for 8th, five strokes back (the scores, thank goodness, are searchable on the ‘Net), while Nicklaus was yet another two strokes behind that, in a tie for 14th.
They would play other rounds together, of course, but never by earning their way into the final pairing as tournament leaders. And I’ve always wondered if it had been somehow my fault that they didn’t stay as leaders — if somehow it had been I who had thrown them off their rhythms. Of course, that’s nonsense. A cub reporter doesn’t have such influence on two hardened pros, especially not an hour before their rounds. But I still felt somehow guilty.
Anyway, here’s the thing that stuck with me: there was such a bond between these two competitors. There was such an mutuality of appreciation for each other’s company. Here we are, 18 years later, and every day of the Open Championship featured another story of Jack or Barbara Nicklaus sending text messages or making phone calls to Watson from across the Atlantic.
And here is what is truly remarkable. Eighteen years ago, Watson already seemed to be more “yesterday’s news” than not. Yet, through grit and determination and skill and smarts, he still was able to turn back the clock, so many years later that children in the meantime had been born and grown and completely finished high school. This is astonishing.
“We’re not out there thinking about the past.” No, not at all. Not when the present offers such wonders.