Tom Watson is among the greatest golfers in the history of the sport. He won eight major championships in his career, including five British Opens.
These days, however, he’s just happy to make the cut.
Not the cut at the golf tournament, but the one that requires him to cut a head of cattle from the herd.
The latest obsession of Watson is a Western-style equestrian event called “cutting,” in which a horse and rider direct cattle during a 2½-minute performance. Judges score the sessions.
“This is my new passion,” said Watson, 69, producing his phone to show highlights from a cutting competition.
“Your goal is to separate a cow from the herd, just like you do on the range,” said Watson, who was born and raised in Kansas City, Mo. “And when you separate, you have to put the reins down. You can’t guide the horse with the reins anymore, it’s part of the game. So it’s just you, the horse, and your feet controlling the horse.”
It’s all relatively new to Watson, the six-time PGA Tour player of the year, who’s still heavily involved in golf. He plays in various senior tournaments, redesigns courses, and is a brand ambassador for Rolex.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Watson coming oh-so-close to winning the British Open at Turnberry in Scotland. He was 59 at the time, and looked as if he would become the oldest major winner in history. But he wound up losing to Stewart Cink in a four-hole playoff.
“People ask me simple questions about it,” said Watson, sitting in the Rolex suite at Royal Portrush. “‘So do you remember it? Do you still have regrets or anything like that? ‘No, I really don’t. I really don’t think about it unless you bring it up.”
Watson, who for so long dodged the effects of Father Time, is starting to feel his age on the course.
“I really am getting shorter off the tee,” he said. “It’s a strength issue, I’m not as strong as I used to be. It was starting to be pretty apparent. My benchmark was 250 in the air, 250 yards in the air as my benchmark. I could still hit 250. You know. I think I’m lying to myself now that I can hit 250 in the air. I want to think I can, but it’s gotta be downhill, downwind. “
Still, his longevity is astounding. He led the money list in earnings five times. He became an icon in the 1970s and ‘80s, was a chief threat to the supremacy of Jack Nicklaus, and won three Senior British Opens when in his 50s.
“My mom and dad gave me good genes,” Watson said. “I have a swing that lasts. I haven’t gotten hurt, my back’s been good. I’ve have had a hip replacement, but the hip is just a mechanical joint; it’s not like a knee or shoulder or a hand or something like that. That can cause you to end your career. Hips are pretty simple. But you know longevity is just the fact that I have a swing that’s pretty consistent.”
His interest and involvement in golf hasn’t faded. But his passion for equestrian competition is real. He first tried it three years ago, picking up on the interest of his wife, Hillary, who competed in shows while her famous husband watched from the stands.
“You compete maybe once or twice a day for 2½ minutes and that’s it,” Watson said. “There’s a lot of downtime, and in that downtime I watched the other competitors, especially the pros. Watched them how they do it.
“It started to fascinate me. And finally I got tired watching my wife and said, ‘You know what, I’m going to do this.’ And so I did it the right way.”
Asked to apply the golf-handicap system to cutting, he said he was about a 40 when he started — in other words, terrible — but since has worked himself into a 12, which is strong but with still plenty of room to improve.
His career earnings in cutting are $19,000, a mere $11,060,000 short of what they were in golf. Watson said golfer Hal Sutton participated in the same type of riding competitions, earning $42,000.
“My goal is to surpass Hal’s lifetime earnings,” Watson said.
A guy can dream.