Despite all his injuries and setbacks throughout his career, Denis Watson is thankful for every moment he spends on the golf course. (Photo: Getty Images)
Despite all his injuries and setbacks throughout his career, Denis Watson is thankful for every moment he spends on the golf course. (Photo: Getty Images)

Senior PGA win a major milestone for Watson

There was a time when Denis Watson thought he'd never play golf again, let alone contend for and win a major championship. But now the Zimbabwean has the Alfred S. Bourne Trophy in his possession -- and peace in his life.

By Lauren Deason, Editorial Coordinator

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- He'd been holding it in for so long -- the length of time since his last win was 22 years, 8 months and two days -- that the words, the emotions and even the tears poured out of Denis Watson.

Watson's first order of business after sinking a par-saving putt to win by two strokes over Eduardo Romero at the Senior PGA Championship on Sunday was a tearfully happy trophy presentation at the 18th green, where two of his young twins played with the silver Alfred S. Bourne Trophy that's as big as them.

"We have a nice little trophy cabinet (but) there is not room for this one in there," said Watson, who also earned $360,000 and 720 Charles Schwab Cup points to vault into second after his win. "And I don't believe I'm going to put it in there. I'm going to stick it somewhere where everyone can see it."

A recap of Watson's life since his last victory on the PGA TOUR in 1984 at the Panasonic Las Vegas Invitational -- one of three wins he earned on the TOUR that year -- would be longer than a novel. Consider this the Cliff's Notes version, which won't do it justice but is better than nothing.

Nothing is a word Watson is used to. Nothing came of his hard work for more than two decades, he had nothing to show for his weeks, months and years spent in rehab after eight or nine different surgeries over that time span.

The first surgery took place after a freak incident at the 1985 Goodyear Classic in Port Elizabeth in South Africa. In the lead heading into the final day of the tournament, Watson was on the fourth hole of the last round hitting his second shot. Unbeknownst to him, a small stump sat underneath his ball so that, when he hit it, the club struck the root and spun backwards out of his hands. His neck whipped sideways and he lost 70 percent of strength and muscle mass in his right shoulder with that one fateful shot.

Pure adrenaline plus a string of birdies got him through the next 14 holes and Watson hung on to win the tournament, but the pain returned quickly after he came out of the trance.

"I never played a decent round of golf for a long, long time after that," said Watson. "Eventually I had surgery. But there was nerve damage, whiplash in the neck that I didn't know about yet, so I had the triple surgery on my arm and my wrist and did six months of rehab.

"I was told I would never be able to play golf again if I had to have this wrist surgery…and I'll never forget that day because it was devastating."

But he underwent another surgery and rehabbed for six to eight hours a day over a six-month span. "You know when I look back on it, no human being would be that stupid to go through that. I just lived in rehab."

Fate had dealt him a low blow and would continue to do so -- after one more neck surgery he spent six weeks in a halo and body brace -- but hindsight is 20/20 and Watson says he would not be the person he is today without the time away from golf.

"You can't go back," he said. "And the great things that I've had in between -- (you) could never, ever ask for anything as good as I've had. Nobody can, nobody's done the great things that I have."

He dabbled in the TV business for a while, doing work on ESPN, the GOLF CHANNEL and PGA TOUR radio. Watson also worked nine-hour days teaching at Lake Nona Golf and Country Club with David Leadbetter after two instructors quit. But, again, he wouldn't have traded that for anything, since a serendipitous twist lead him to his wife.

"(While) teaching, I got to meet my wife, Susan. Bruce Fleisher said, 'I got this player who is looking for a teacher. Can David fly up?'" said Watson. When Leadbetter couldn't go, Watson went instead.

"I said, 'I'm going to be in Chicago. I'll go take a look at her and see if she's got any potential.' And I didn't realize it was going to be potential as my future wife and supporter. It's been a pretty great ride since then."

The pair has five children aged 6-and-under, including two sets of twins. They share an adventure-filled life, jetting off to Ireland on a whim to play golf or visiting the Eiffel Tower on a week's notice because their eldest daughter wanted to see it. Those things might not have happened if he remained injury-free on the TOUR and played out his 10-year exemption.

"The look on my daughter's face when I woke her up right in front of the Eiffel Tower was worth a million dollars," he said. "To see a smile on a kid's face like, wow, that is so great. And you know, there are other things in life besides golf. (This win) is a really wonderful experience for me. This validates my effort, validates my golfing career."

The win didn't come easy but it came at just the right time. Watson tied for third at the Regions Charity Classic on the Champions Tour last week and has had three other top-10 finishes this season. His wife had a good feeling heading into the Senior PGA Championship and Watson maintained positive thoughts as well, despite making double-bogey on the final two holes during the second round.

"I made two doubles and I was pretty down," said Watson. His wife tried to cheer him up, but he couldn't snap out of the rut. Then he looked to his left and saw a vision-impaired man trying to maneuver his way around the course with the help of a cane.

"That got me," said Watson, pausing for a moment to wipe away tears. "For whatever reason I thought, 'Geez, you know what, you have no right to be unhappy with yourself. You get to play golf.' And that guy will never play golf."

So yet again it was fate or -- as he sees it, a higher power in heaven -- stepping in. And this time, the intervention lead to his first Champions Tour win.

"(I think) that was a sign from God to say, 'Hey, look, whatever happens it is your control, you just go do it. And have a good attitude. Because you are pretty lucky.' And I feel lucky, I've had a lot of great things happen to me," Watson said.

And one of those great things is now in the form of a silver trophy that is going to sit somewhere for all to see. 

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