Rory McIlroy's victory at the PGA Championship Sunday felt to many observers like a passing of the baton — from Tiger Woods, who once ruled the golfing world, to young superstar McIlroy. Tom Watson, a former superstar in his own right, speaks to Robert Siegel about the state of golf today.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Rory McIlroy two-putted on the 18th green of Valhalla Golf Club yesterday to win the PGA Championship, the last of golf's four major annual tournaments. McIlroy also won the third - last month's British Open. The 25-year-old from Northern Ireland grabbed his victory Sunday in the dim light after sunset following a rain delay. But metaphorically, the win confirmed a new dawn. A young superstar now dominates the game the way Tiger Woods once did.
Tom Watson knows what it's like to tower over the game of golf. In the 1970s and '80s, he won the British Open five times, the Masters twice, the U.S. Open once. He played in this year's PGA, invited because he is the captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team. This was his 33rd PGA Championship, and he joins us now from Louisville. Hi. Welcome to the program.
TOM WATSON: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: Pretty exciting PGA yesterday, wouldn't you say?
WATSON: It was a very exciting PGA, with everything happening, with the weather delay, with Phil Mickelson making a great run throughout the last day and then Rory McIlroy doing what he did - what he's been doing for the last month. He's just had a tremendous last month, winning the last three tournaments he's played in - the Open Championship, the Bridgestone at Firestone Country Club, and now the PGA Championship, for a second PGA Championship here at Valhalla.
SIEGEL: Yeah. I should note here - I don't mean to rub it in, but of the four major golf championships, the PGA's the...
WATSON: Don't rub it in, Robert.
SIEGEL: It's the one you never won.
SIEGEL: Is there anything so different about these tournaments - one from the other - setting aside the British Open, which looks like a different game altogether. Is there anything so different about them that you have worse luck in the PGA than elsewhere?
WATSON: Well, not really. I think it's just kind of the luck of the draw. I played well in PGA Championships. I had a lot of good rounds, but I never put the four rounds together to win. It's just one of those that got away from me.
SIEGEL: Thinking back to, say, 1973 - your first PGA - how different is the men's professional golf game today than it was then?
WATSON: Back in 1973, you didn't have the corporate hospitality, the big grandstands. You just didn't have the infrastructure that they have now. It's just amazing. With all the media involved now, it's so much bigger in the outside part of the championship. But actually playing the championship, it's very much the same for the players.
SIEGEL: Let's talk about Tiger Woods. On Friday - day two of the PGA - the cable station covering the championship actually cut to the parking lot to catch Tiger Woods arriving and watch his caddy unload his clubs from the SUV. That is to say, watching Tiger Woods in the parking lot, watching Tiger Woods on the practice tee competes, actually, with watching other guys golf at that very moment. Is it healthy for a sport to have its fortune so connected to the fortunes of one great player?
WATSON: Well, it is if that player continues at a high-level. And unfortunately, Tiger has not continued at that high level. His form right now and, more importantly, his health is not good.
SIEGEL: When Woods broke in - it's 20 years ago now, really - there was some hope that he would be followed by other African-American golfers, others members of minority groups in the States. Twenty years later, when Woods isn't out there, the tour is as white as ever. What happened? What didn't happen to make the sport more diverse?
WATSON: Well, that's a good question. I really don't know. Three things that make the game tough are the expense of it, which, you know, puts a lot of people out, the difficulty in learning the game - the third thing is how much time it takes. And that - that's the big problem, especially in our society today, when it's so based on social media - time that's taken away from just about everything else. Do they have enough time to spend playing the game of golf? That's the biggest issue that I think that we have in the game.
SIEGEL: Health and form obviously are very important to a golfer, but I wonder which you think is more true. What separates, say, Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods at his best, Jack Nicklaus, you at the top your game? Is it health, strength, mechanics, swing? Is it mental control over your game?
WATSON: Well, I think the most important thing about being a champion is the stick-to-itiveness, if I have to use an awkward word. You never give up on any shot, and I think that's what Rory brings to the table, all the great champions bring to the table. They understand that they're not going to hit the best shots all the time, but they manage the golf course with their game better than the other players and put themselves in a position to win and then take advantage of what they can do to win.
SIEGEL: At Valhalla, you shot a 72 and a 73 on Thursday and Friday. That's a couple of strokes too many for you to advance into the third round on Saturday, but scores that a lot of mortals would only dream of scoring at Valhalla. Are there anymore PGA Championships in your future, do you think?
WATSON: Probably not, Robert. I'm always disappointed when I miss a cut. I missed the cut by two shots, and I had the opportunity to make the cut. And I failed, and when you fail, it's always disappointing.
SIEGEL: You failed, but you're more than twice as old as the guy who won the tournament. You...
WATSON: I don't think I'm that old. That's the problem.
SIEGEL: I mean, I was curious what you were - what you were thinking on those first couple of days. It's important - it would've been important to make it into the weekend for you.
WATSON: Well, I thought exactly the way I always have thought. How best can I shoot the scores that I need to win a golf tournament or to make the cut? I still think I'm a little bit younger than my body actually is still, and that still gives me the desire to play.
SIEGEL: I need no convincing on this score, but for people who are mystified by what is so great about playing golf, what do you love about this game? What keeps you at it so long?
WATSON: You know, the beautiful thing about golf is that you take a golf ball, which is 1.68 inches in diameter. And you hit it with a club which is ill-designed to project a golf ball. And you can make that golf ball go 200 yards and end up six inches from the flag stick.
SIEGEL: You can do that, anyway.
WATSON: Well, you can, too.
SIEGEL: That's once in a while, once in a while, once in a while.
WATSON: One of the things - you see - you see, that's the thing. I play with a lot of amateurs, and honestly, amateurs can hit better shots than I can. And that's what keeps them coming back. They hit that one shot that they just - you know, that's what they're trying to do. And they hit that one shot, and then say, I can do it. And so they come back the next day and say, I'm going to try to hit that same shot. They may top it or shake it or whiff it, but, you know, at least they have that belief that they can do it again.
SIEGEL: That's true. It is remarkable how a few good shots in a round can make you think that you should come back and do this again.
WATSON: (Laughing) I know. I see it every day in Pro-Ams.
SIEGEL: Well, Tom Watson, thanks a lot for talking with us, and good luck at the Ryder Cup.
WATSON: Well, Robert, I appreciate it. I appreciate your support, too.
SIEGEL: Well, Tom Watson spoke to us from Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.