Golfer Tom Watson Survives a Reputation for 'Choking' to Come Up with 1977's Biggest Bankroll

“There will always be one golfer who dominates the game,” muses Tom Watson. Now of course it’s Jack Nicklaus. Who’s next? Watson declines to speculate, but the answer may be at hand—specifically, in the ones gripping his powerful driver. Already Watson has won five tournaments in 1977 to become the tour’s leading money winner. A victory this week in the PGA tourney at Pebble Beach would push his earnings past $300,000. Significantly, the only golfer approaching that amount is Nicklaus, whom Watson has defeated in two head-to-head confrontations—first at the Masters, then at the British Open in a dramatic final round some onlookers called the greatest ever played.

On the course the potential Jack-killer is a boyish 27-year-old who could almost pass for a caddie. He’s kidded by other pros as “Huck Finn” for his Missouri upbringing, tousled red hair, freckles and gap-toothed grin. That placid exterior belies the intensity with which Watson has, not always successfully, faced golf’s psychological pressures. Before this year Tom fought a reputation of “choking” during a tournament’s final rounds and still believes “you have to win against yourself.” He attributes his breakthrough this season to an improved swing. “If you don’t believe in your swing,” he says, “you don’t hold up.”

Tom began searching for the perfect swing at age 6. To the Kansas City Country Club born, he was introduced to the game by his insurance agent father, Ray, a crack amateur golfer. At Pembroke Country Day, Tom played football and basketball, developing the sinewy forearms and taut 5’9″, 160-pound physique that make him one of the tour’s longest hitters. A four-time winner of the Missouri Amateur, Tom played Arnold Palmer at 15 in an exhibition match. Watson’s first drive soared “dead solid, 280 yards,” he recalls. “Palmer did a double take. Then he ripped one 20 yards past me.” Two years later Watson faced Nicklaus, and “popped the ball up only 150 yards on the first hole.” But he eventually tied Nicklaus at 71.

Like his dad and brothers John and Ridge, Tom attended Stanford, majoring in psychology. He decided in his senior year to turn pro. “Up till that time I didn’t play as well as I could or make the grades that I could,” he admits. “I would handle college a lot better now, and if I lost the little finger of my left hand I could enroll in medical school.”

Tom is married to his high school sweetheart, Linda Rubin (they met in a production of The Pirates of Penzance). Though he’s Episcopal and she’s Jewish, they were wed by a rabbi and say religion “is never a problem.” Children are deferred for now, since Linda accompanies Tom on tour as his bookkeeper and secretary. He’s thankful that she “is willing to share me with the game.” “Not after 7 o’clock,” Linda rejoins. “Then he’s my property.”

The two of them spend only three months a year at their rented apartment in Kansas City. They grab their recreation on the fly between tournaments, retreating into the wilds in a four-wheel-drive Dodge truck to hunt and fish. “The tour,” Tom notes, “has both glamor and tremendous drawbacks. Your private life is exterminated. It’s my idea of what being a politician is like—and I don’t want to be a politician.”

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