Thursday 22 August 2019

Tom's Course of true love

Watson looks to leave lasting mark on Ballybunion

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
Revered: Watson with staff members at Ballybunion
Labour of love: Watson and Ballybunion share a special place in each other’s hearts

Brian Keogh

Tom Watson spends much of his time these days cutting horses and trying to beat Hal Sutton's career earnings in that exotic contest of man versus beast.

For the uninitiated in the western arts, cutting horses consists of competing in shows on cutting horses.

"What you do is you walk your cutting horse into the herd of cattle, and your object is to separate the cow from the herd," Watson explained at Royal Portrush, just a week before he said goodbye to championship golf in these islands in The Senior Open at Royal Lytham and St Annes.

"But you have to put the reins down. You can't guide the horses with the reins any more. It's part of the game. It's just you and the horse and your feet controlling the horse."

Watson explained that he got tired watching his wife Hillary riding in shows and asked his ranch foreman for advice on becoming a horseman.

"I had cut a little bit before in celebrity events, but I had no idea what the hell I was doing," he said. "So I worked at it, and I improved. The good thing is that you get to hold on to the saddle horn, the pummel.

"I learned you have to watch that cow and get ready to move when she moved. So I started as a 40 handicap, stunk up the place in my first event and lost the cow, which is like hitting out of bounds. So recently I asked my trainer, who is a no B.S. Australian, what's my handicap. And he said I was about a 12. So my lifetime earnings cutting horses are now at $19,000, and my goal is to surpass Hal Sutton's lifetime earnings. Hal's dad was in the cutting business, and Hal's earnings are $42,000, so that's my goal."

One of the biggest motivating factors early in Watson's career was to own a Rolex watch because the players he idolised, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, wore the gold, Presidential Rolex.

"I said if I made enough money, I'd buy the stainless steel and gold bracelet Rolex," Watson said. "It was a want, not a need. So a few years into my career, I made enough money. But unbeknownst to me, my wife presented me with that green Rolex box, bought it in secret, and I opened it up and inside was the Presidential Rolex with the inscription, 'To my million dollar baby,' because I had just surpassed a million dollars in lifetime earnings on the tour."

Watson's second wife, Hilary, is battling cancer right now and while he's taken a step away from competing to be at her side, he still has ambitions in the game.

"I guess you could say that this might be riding off into the sunset on the back of a horse and essentially it is," he said.

Those ambitions have much to do with his deep love of the game's origins and of Ballybunion Golf Club, the links gem he put on the world map by using the Old Course as the perfect training ground for the Open Championship.

He would go on to lift that old Claret Jug five times between 1975 and 1983 and almost won a sixth at the age of 59 in 2009.

Another Claret Jug is now beyond him, but he's got his eye on another prize now and hoping that he will be selected to redesign Ballybunion's second 18, the Robert Trent Jones-designed Cashen Course, which opened for play in late 1982.

With Martin Hawtree's plan already in their possession, the club has now asked Martin Ebert of Ebert & Mackenzie and Watson and his local Irish partner Graeme Webster to make their proposals.

It now remains to be seen how profound the changes will be, when they will be done and who will get the job but Watson is keen.

"Graeme Webster has been kind of the in-house architect for the Old Course at Ballybunion for the last four years," Watson said. "And he's done some nice work, particularly cosmetically.

"Robert Trent Jones built the new course on land the club bought way back in 1967 saying, 'I left you a rough diamond here, it's up to the future people to look at it and polish the diamond'. Right now, it's unpolished.

"They've done some minor changes to it, but that's it. It features some of the most striking dunes you've ever seen in links golf. There are 90ft dunes, 120ft dunes in places. But the course is just not very good. The greens are too small, too contoured."

Watson and Webster, who created the new 18th green, walked the course for three days in the run up to The Open.

"We've been working on strategy and things to do on the golf course, and I think we have a good plan," Watson said. "Now it's up to the club to decide whether they want to do it and, if so, who they pick to do it."

Having informally asked Ebert and Watson for proposals, what happens now has yet to be decided.

It would be fair to say the membership is divided between the Watson-ites, who are determined to have their greatest ambassador get the job and others smitten with the idea of employing Ebert, who did such a spectacular job on Royal Portrush and Turnberry.

While many wonder why Ballybunion has not thrown the process open to architects, the club received as many as "six or seven" proposals several years ago and approved Hawtree's plan ahead of bids by Donald Steel, Kyle Phillips and Watson himself.

The economic crash forced the club to put those plans on hold and the only thing that's clear now is that the club wants the Cashen Course to become an attractive foil to the marvellous Old Course.

The great links was renovated in 2016 when all the greens were re-turfed with 100 per cent native fescue, 38 sand-faced bunkers were revetted and 30,000 sq. m. of green surrounds were re-turfed while significant design changes were also made to the seventh and eighth holes.

Polishing a diamond takes time, and whether the job goes to the R&A's designer of choice or an eight-time major winner, it will be the middle of next year before a decision is made.

Watson's love of links golf on this side of the world is due in no small measure to his appreciation he received from golfing people. Whatever happens, his name will forever be associated with Ballybunion.

Walking the streets of the town during this week's Irish Amateur Close, there was reference to just one golfer visible to the casual pedestrian.

"Welcome Home Tom," read a poster displayed in the windows of several pubs and shops. "From all in Ballybunion."

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