SI Vault
A Crisis Brought Out His Best
Michael Bamberger
December 29, 2003
A campaign to find a cure for the disease that struck his caddie had an interesting side effect on Tom Watson: It made a new man out of him
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 29, 2003

A Crisis Brought Out His Best

A campaign to find a cure for the disease that struck his caddie had an interesting side effect on Tom Watson: It made a new man out of him

View CoverRead All Articles

For decades Tom Watson was a puzzle. In his hatless, beltless heyday, and for many years after it, the Hall of Fame golfer would hit shots into awful places—in hay fields and forests, or against a St. Andrews wall—and immediately flash an inscrutable lips-only smile. You probably remember how Bruce Edwards, his faithful caddie, would trot to keep up with him. You probably remember Watson's dour grin. It was as if Watson enjoyed torture by golf.� Watson wasn't a misanthrope; he was nothing like Ben Hogan or Ty Cobb or Richard Nixon. He was good with his playing partners, in press tents, to kids with pens. But for years while he dressed in garish colors, his emotions ran in shades of gray. To certain players and caddies and sponsors and fans, Watson seemed cold and unreal—like a wax golfer, even as he was winning five British Opens, two Masters titles and one U.S. Open.

Edwards, who has caddied for Watson for most of the past 30 years, helped put a human face on his boss. Operating in the shadows, where the best loopers have always worked, he'd have a smoke with Fuzzy or play cards with Jack's caddie or talk college basketball with the CBS suits, and some of the goodwill that flowed toward Edwards would reach his boss. But there was only so much even a relentlessly upbeat man like Edwards could do. Watson remained an enigma.

This year, things changed. A new Watson—easier to read, more satisfying to watch—emerged. A 54-year-old man, 20 years past his prime, turned out to be the year's most significant golfer, more important than Tiger or Annika—or the get-out-the-media-guide winners of the British Open and the PGA, Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel. Watson, with an assist, as usual, from Edwards, was the best thing in golf this year.

A year ago Edwards called Watson at home in Stilwell, Kans., and told him he had been diagnosed with ALS, the muscle-wasting disease that killed Lou Gehrig. Watson and Edwards have a relationship rooted in sports, and to discuss life they borrow metaphors from games. "I just made a quadruple bogey," is what Edwards said.

The news seemed to unlock something in Watson. "We'll beat this thing," he told Edwards, even though nobody ever has.

Since then Watson has been fixated on a single goal: saving his caddie's life. The crisis has brought a vigor to his game not seen in years. It also humanized one of the sport's great figures.

Watson's season began in earnest on the Thursday before Father's Day, when he shot a 65 in the opening round of the U.S. Open. He spotted the field many years and some yards, but nobody shot lower that day, not Tiger or his nemesis, Vijay Singh, or the eventual winner, Jim Furyk. But it wasn't just Watson's moment. Everybody who was there in the Chicago suburbs could feel the love between Watson and Edwards. It was in their once-unimaginable hug on the 18th green, in their tears, in the forcefulness of Watson's press-conference statements. Edwards's illness had been public knowledge for months, but now Watson, with his superb round, was the sport's story of the day, and he used the spotlight to speak of his "pal," his "brother" and the disease. Passionately and with a precision that revealed a half year of deep reading in medical texts, Watson talked about the need for ALS research money "to save the life of my friend and others like him."

By the end of the year, and with only brief visits to his former home, the practice tee, Watson had played in a record nine majors, four on the regular Tour and five on his home circuit, the 50-and-over Champions tour. He was playing more than he had played in years, and he was playing, he kept saying, for Edwards, because a win for his caddie would mean attention for ALS and deep joy for an old friend who was now taking a hundred pills a day.

Watson did win. He won two senior majors, one with Edwards on the bag, the Tradition, in Oregon, the other at the Senior British Open at Turnberry, in Scotland, a trip Edwards could not make. At the final tournament of the year, the Charles Schwab Cup Championship in Sonoma, Calif., which Edwards worked with the help of a golf cart, Watson secured an extra $1 million payout from a seasonlong Champions tour bonus pool. Watson has pledged the entire amount to Edwards and to various charities, mostly ALS causes.

Watson, who was recently voted Champions tour Player of the Year, won't stop talking about the disease now, in public and in private. Kim Julian, the wife of a pro golfer with ALS, Jeff Julian, says that talking to Watson about ALS is like talking to a doctor. Watson can also get experts on the phone that she cannot. He gets her questions answered.

Continue Story
1 2