Over the years, his boyish appearance was responsible for many references to Huck Finn. Even today, at 67, Tom Watson resembles a younger man looking for an adventure. He is something of a latter-day Roy Rogers, riding horses on his farm in Stilwell, Kansas, while displaying enough vigor to temporarily outrace Father Time.
What is age, anyway, but a number? In golf, 67 is 5-under-par on a par-72 course. In life, 67 signifies a time to be scholarly about all that has been or will be. Professional golfer or professional philosopher, Watson excels at both.
Watson’s golf career unfolded in front of us. As golf fans, we knew him as the new kid in 1975. There he was, 25 years old, capturing the first of five Open Championships. Then, 34 years later, he was the old guy who almost won his sixth Open title at 59, losing a playoff to Stewart Cink.
And now we follow him at 67. Watson the golfer has transformed himself into Watson the humanitarian.
Sure, he claimed eight major championships. The only golfers in history to win more are Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan and Gary Player.
Surveying his deeds off the course, though, we realize there is much more to Tom Watson than birdies and bogeys. He has made a commitment to helping those who have difficulty helping themselves.
Perhaps Watson is best epitomized by the PGA Tour’s Payne Stewart Award, presented annually to the player who best exemplifies the values of character, charity and sportsmanship. Watson received the honor in 2003.
“I’ve always had a desire to help others,” he said. “This has to do with my nature more than anything else.
“I feel for people who have hardships.”
Born in 1949 in Kansas City, Missouri, Watson has lived his entire life in the area. Much of his extensive charitable work is for the betterment of local and regional initiatives.
“You do what you can for people and different organizations,” said Watson.
For 25 years, from 1980-2004, Watson hosted the Children’s Mercy Golf Classic, a nationally-known annual golf exhibition held in Kansas City to benefit Children’s Mercy pediatric hospital. The event helped Watson raise more than $12 million for the hospital.
Each year at the Classic, Watson conducted a golf clinic. Spellbound attendees listened as he shared insights for improved play.
“What I love about clinics is teaching people to play better golf,” Watson said. “I know what joy it gives me to get a tip, and I enjoy describing and showing my own tips to people.”
Watson’s fundraising and volunteerism are widespread in Kansas City. He was instrumental in attracting Clubs for Kids, a youth golf program which began in the 1980s. Along with the Junior Golf Foundation of Greater Kansas City, Clubs for Kids was the precursor to The First Tee of Greater Kansas City. Watson remains the chairman of the group’s advisory board.
“We’ve touched a lot of children’s lives through The First Tee,” said Watson. “Golf is part of it, but the main element is helping them understand that the core values lead to becoming successful human beings.”
The Watson Challenge celebrated its 10th year in 2016. It brings together the best amateur and professional golfers in the Kansas City region for a 54-hole competition. Proceeds from the annual tournament benefit The First Tee of Greater Kansas City. This year, more than $150,000 was raised.
Watson also promotes Youth On Course, a nonprofit organization that allows junior golfers to play at participating courses for $5 or less. Caddie training, paid high school internships and college scholarships are available. The program is administered locally by the Kansas City Golf Association.
“Youth On Course is a bridge between The First Tee and lifetime golfers,” said Watson. “The foundation helps defray the cost of playing golf.
“No kid has to pay more than five dollars to play. It’s a dealmaker for kids.”
The Blue River Golf Course, home of the Tom Watson Golf Academy, is one of 13 Youth On Course sites in Kansas City.
Not all of Watson’s fundraising efforts are dedicated to children.
After the death in 2004 of his longtime caddie and friend, Bruce Edwards, from ALS (commonly called Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Watson helped start the Bruce Edwards Foundation for ALS Research. The following year, he began the Bruce Edwards Celebrity Classic, with author John Feinstein, which has raised millions of dollars for research. Watson works in concert with Dr. Jeffrey D. Rothstein, MD, PhD, medical director of the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins Medical Center.
With his fundraising through the Packard Center, Watson pays tribute to Jay Fishman, former Travelers Group insurance company chief executive, who died this year from ALS. Fishman was a major supporter of the PGA Tour through his involvement with the Travelers Championship.
In another charitable endeavor, Watson has been involved in supporting the U.S. military. In 2007 and 2009, he participated in trips to Iraq, where he celebrated Thanksgiving with the troops, gave golf lessons and distributed donated golf equipment, “delivering a little bit of home” to the soldiers during their tours. He also visited and raised funds for Wounded Warriors.
“I am a patriot,” Watson said, describing the impetus for his military support, “and I admire those who put their lives on the line for our country. My father was a World War II veteran, a vintage vet.
“The younger generation has done the same thing. I respect their sacrifices.”
Watson and his wife, Hilary Watson, work together “to help fund organizations that need funding,” said Watson. “We mainly focus on children’s causes and causes that are near and dear to our hearts.”
The Watsons sit down annually together “to see what we can do for people,” Watson said, determining the focus of their charitable efforts for the coming year.
One of their joint interests is contributing to the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund, a national charity that supports professional rodeo athletes who have been injured.
Reflecting on the influences that led him down his professional and personal paths, Watson credits his success to those who helped him throughout his career and life.
“My parents were people who gave back in many ways,” said Watson.
In his early years, his mentors were his father, Ray Watson, and golf professional Stan Thirsk, who together built the foundation for his swing and his work ethic, with a no-nonsense approach. The result, Watson said, was the determination and dedication that he developed in his golf career.
Watson is quick to say that he is hardly alone as a professional golfer doing extensive charitable work. The PGA Tour, with a far-reaching effect, sets the bar high.
“The fundamental basis of the PGA Tour is giving,” Watson said. “The fact that our organization is charity-based is something I take pride in.
“And the players themselves have their own charities. We all spend a lot of time in our communities helping people, changing lives.”
Having drawn inspiration from various people and ideas throughout his life, Watson named Lou Holtz, Hall of Fame coach and analyst, as one of them. Specifically, it was a commencement address that Holtz delivered to the 2015 graduates of Franciscan University, in Steubenville, Ohio, that left an impression on Watson, who discovered the speech on YouTube.
“Lou offered three simple rules for life,” Watson said, “which appealed to me because I try to keep life simple. He said to do what’s right, do everything to the best of your ability and show people you care.
“I try to do the right thing and help people along the way.”
–Sally J. Sportsman, Senior Golf Insider