When Tom Watson arrives at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club this week, he will have more to defend than his U.S. Open championship. In the eyes of some of his peers, he will have to defend his reputation as well.
"Tom Watson always wants the same thing--more, more, more," says nine-year veteran Howard Twitty, a player director of the PGA Tour Policy Board in 1981 and 1982. "Traditionally, the great players have been concerned about the health of the game. In the things he says and does, I don't think Tom Watson is out for the best interests of the tour."
"Tom has a nickname on the tour: Carnak. A lot of players call him that to his face," says Twitty. "That's because Watson's like that Johnny Carson character--"Carnak the Magnificent"--the guy who knows all the answers before you even ask him the questions."
Irritation among players has been growing toward Watson this season ever since it became known on tour that Watson held a five-hour winter meeting in Kansas City with Commissioner Deane Beman. Among many topics, they discussed the possibility of a new super tour--composed of the game's 20 to 25 top players who would have their separate slate of 15 televised million-dollar tournaments.
Watson said, in an interview on Saturday, that his super tour discussions with Beman "were never serious. We just threw open the floor to 'what would happen if' ideas. A super tour is an old suggestion that goes back to the time of (Byron) Nelson and (Ben) Hogan . . . I've been formally approached by people who would like me to be part of something like that, but I think it would be bad for the game."
" . . . You can't tell how things will go in the future. Maybe a star tour of 20 or 25 players, and a second tour with the best players coming up each year, maybe that could be the way to go someday. Even the split tour that's been discussed might evolve in that direction . . .But I hope it doesn't."
Players who are not in the "superstar" category shudder at any mention of such a breakaway tour that would turn their events into a nontelevised minor league. "It would kill the tour as we know it," says Twitty. "Only somebody who's strictly out for himself would entertain the idea . . . It's created bad feeling toward Tom."
Beman refused to address these issues directly, saying, "If I publicly discuss private talks, like those I've had with Tom, then I'll never be able to have them again with any player."
Watson has also alienated some of his fellow players by publicly and repeatedly expressing serious reservations about the popular new all-exempt tour, saying that it "hurts competition and promotes mediocrity."
"What we have now is a closed shop, plain and simple," Watson said Saturday. "Anybody who can play well enough to finish 125th on the money list can stay on tour indefinitely. And if you can't finish 125th, you can't play at all. Especially when you have a huge edge on the guys below you. They have many less chances to play because many of the fields are filled, while you can enter any tournament you want . . .
"Maybe we should blend the old and the new system and have 80 or 90 exempt players (instead of the old 60), but still have Monday qualifying. The old way was a pure system, even if it was hard."
"Tom says there's no competition with the all-exempt tour," says Twitty. "Is it possible that there's too much competition at the top this way--too much to suit Tom? With this new system, good young players can fire at the flags and try to win, instead of just trying to make cuts and survive. Guys like Mike Nicolette and Gary Koch and Scott Hoch and Fred Couples have already won tournaments this year and they say it's because the all-exempt tour has let them relax and free-wheel it."
Annoyance toward Watson is surfacing now because of his central back-room role in the ill-fated "Nicklaus-Palmer letter," last week questioning the general direction the PGA Tour was taking under Beman. "Jack and Arnie took the lead in public, because they're the legends," says Twitty, who, as a member of the board, was instrumental in adopting the policies the letter criticized. "But Tom was prodding them to do it.
"When Jack talks about 'the young stars' whose marketing rights and business opportunities in golf course architecture are going to be restricted, who's he talking about except Watson?" asks Twitty. "What other 'young star' has the sort of potential that Jack and Arnold did in those areas?"
Nicklaus and Palmer jetted to Westchester on Thursday to meet with the policy board and, thereafter, they "withdrew" the letter. Of the 14 famous signers of the letter, only Watson did not come to Harrison, N.Y., for the four-hour business meeting.
"Jack and Arnold saved the guys who signed that letter a lot of grief by retracting it because (player director) Jim Colbert had a copy of the letter in his briefcase and he was going to read it to all the members," says Twitty.
"I've read the letter and it's no 'inquiry for information.' It was a series of demands in very strong wording, like 'cease all marketing.' And, at the end, there were phrases that some people on the board thought were a veiled threat of legal action (against the PGA Tour).
"If that letter had been read aloud, you couldn't have stopped the screaming for an hour . . . What we're seeing is a conflict between the interests of the superstars, particularly Watson, and everybody else's interests."
Asked about his role in the letter, Watson at first said, "I really don't know very much about it. I wasn't at the meeting."
However, he later added, "If you want to hit the nail on the head, the question is, 'What happens to the new stars?' Are their rights being protected? Maybe it's partly my fault and I'm just a conservative who thinks that things in golf have worked pretty well and we shouldn't change them until we're sure we're doing the right things."