I was supposed to work for Willie Wood at the Nationwide Tour's event in Chattanooga, Tenn., but he withdrew so he could watch his son's last golf tournament of the year. Standing on the Black Creek CC practice tee late Wednesday morning unemployed, my chances for a job were waning, and I was hoping to line up something for the next week. My phone rang; I didn't recognize the number, but for some reason I decided to answer.
"Hello, Mark, this is Tom Watson. Can you work for me next week in Houston? Ox can't make it."
I recognized his deep, direct voice, and asked, "When do want me there? Is Ox OK?"
Neil Oxman, Watson's longtime friend and odd-year caddie when he's not organizing Democratic campaigns, was having trouble getting some of his candidates elected and needed time to put out a few fires with the Democrat populace. The last time I worked for Tom, Ox had some health issues; this time, I think Tom actually got a kick out of Ox's predicament.
The phone conversation had been brief and my smile was long as I walked from the practice area heading for the parking lot; it was time to leave the Nationwide Tour because I had a job with a legend. A few fellow caddies asked whether I had found work. I explained the situation, but I'm not sure they believed me. There are many tall tales told in the parking lot among unemployed caddies.
Tom said he was flying in Tuesday at noon. I drove in Monday night from northern Illinois, got a good night's sleep and walked the Woodlands CC early Tuesday morning. I'd been on this course many times but wanted to be well prepared.
The course was basically unplayable from all the rain, and there were doubts we'd get a practice round in. When he arrived, Tom thanked me for showing up at short notice, quickly took care of business, warmed up and went straight to the first tee. I thought he might want to ride around the course quickly, but legends don't become legends practicing from the cart path.
We ended one of the most intense practice rounds I've ever seen about 6:30 p.m. local time, just before another rainstorm blew in. Tom's preparation rivaled practice rounds at a major. He had played the The Woodlands CC only once before. Every hole was dissected, measured and evaluated. You could tell nothing escaped him, and he spent most of his time putting from every angle on the greens, chipping from the deep rough surrounding the greens, hitting tee balls at different fairway targets to analyze approach angles and quizzing me on my yardages. By the time we were done, he knew the course as if he'd been playing it for years. It was priceless, just Tom Watson and me on the course for five hours.
Wednesday was a day off; I was surprised until I heard the reason. Tom drove to San Antonio and visited wounded soldiers at Brook Army hospital. He had befriended a severely burned soldier awhile back and tried to keep in touch with the troops whenever possible. The intensity of his practice round was almost comparable to his compassion for our troops. He's hoping to make a trip to Afghanistan this November.
The Thursday pro-am was played on a makeshift course with nine par-3s because of the fairway quagmires. Three of our four partners told me they were extremely nervous because they were playing with their childhood hero. Tom eased their anxiety, treating each of them as if it were the usual weekly foursome. There was a lot of agitating, goading and joke telling, and Tom took time to answer every question the boys had for their hero.
With two holes to play in the pro-am, Tom realized we were a few shots off the lead. He gathered the boys on the 17th tee, gave them a rousing pep talk, looked them each in the eye and said, "We need two eagles to win this thing."
They rallied by getting those two eagles, won the pro-am on a scorecard playoff by matching cards, and Tom was as excited as they were that night at the pro-am party. He was presented the Dave Marr Award and gave an acceptance speech everyone was talking about the next day. The award exemplifies character and achievement in the golf world; Tom was deeply honored. I lost track of the compliments and "nice speech" comments thrown his way the next day.
We teed off Friday with Texas native Ben Crenshaw and two-time defending Administaff Small Business Classic champion Bernhard Langer in front of a nice crowd. The Houston golf community is one of the finest, and many people there personally thanked Tom for playing in their tournament. He'd look them straight in the eye and thank them in return. Tom played well, shooting 3-under-par 69 despite the putts not falling. There was some casual conversation between shots with Ben, and a couple of caddie mistakes were brought to my attention and discussed briefly before moving on.
Walking up No. 18 on Saturday, Tom was chatting with the eighth-grade girl carrying our scoreboard. It wasn't idle conversation; he was personally interested. After the round, he would slowly make the rounds signing autographs and talking with the crowd, especially the kids. He would sign anything except the Masters flags, golf balls and golf cards. The professional autograph hounds who sell that stuff on eBay have ruined it for the casual fans. Deep down, it hurts not to sign, but it's a matter of principle.
Tom plays quickly, and the tournament was played under lift, clean, and place rules -- a setup that slows play a bit -- but you never heard him complain. His only thoughts are for the present shot. A good one is forgotten almost as quickly as a bad one. The bad shots are few, and the clubface doesn't need a lot of cleaning; the ball marks are always in the center.
Everyone knows about Tom's recent disappointments on Sundays (at the British Open in July and the Senior Players Championship two weeks ago), but this Sunday was going to be our day. Tom played with a nasty head cold all week, and it was getting better as the week wore on.
We were 2 shots back to start the day and in the next-to-last group. Unfortunately, I caught his cold and while he was lining up a 4-foot par putt on No. 10, the sneeze attack hit.
He looked over and said, "Don't say I never gave you anything," then calmly sank the putt. We didn't make many other putts and finished tied for seventh, 4 shots behind eventual winner John Cook. Tom battled to the end, but when the approach found the water on the par-5 13th, I noticed a sag in his shoulders. There was a brief pep talk inside the drop zone, and he sank the 6-footer to save par. Walking to the tee on the par-3 14th hole, he was talking about making an ace; he never gave up.
The last shot, a 5-iron on No. 18, found the right greenside rough. On Tuesday, he had spent at least half an hour hitting chips from the same area practicing for this opportunity on Sunday. He handed me the club and said, "Practice, practice, practice, that's what it's all about." The chip shot almost went in; he tapped in, and walked off the green smiling at the crowd that had given him a standing ovation five minutes earlier.
It was a good week for some, but not for a legend. He thanked me again in the parking lot after the round.
Growing up, most of my heroes were baseball players, and I might be too old for a new one, but I think I found one.
During the week, I watched one of the top-10 golfers of all time practice his trade. Most guys work into their practice routine slowly with their wedges first, but Tom started warming up each day with a 3-iron, and none of them sounded clunky. He made sure he acknowledged all the fans, sincerely understanding what they do for the game. He walked through the crowds gazing into their eyes, waving, and none of it was forced. Most guys work up a strained smile and a nod.
There were only two people at the tournament who gathered a larger following: Arnold Palmer and former President George H. W. Bush. That's not bad company.
Mark Huber has a golf blog at www.MarksKaddyKorner.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.