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Watson living proof that perseverance pays off
Watson talked. And he talked. And he talked some more. His answer went on for more than five minutes before Watson finally stopped and grinned at the assembled writers and reporters.
"I have a lot to say right now because I haven't gotten to talk for 23 years," he said. Yes, it had been that long in between trips to the winner's circle. But doing the math between victories doesn't do justice to Watson's amazing story.
"It's like he came out of a coma," said longtime instructor David Leadbetter, who has been one of Watson's closest friends since they grew up together in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
Certainly few professional golfers have experienced the highs and lows Watson has endured in his career. At one time there was no doubt he was one of the best players in the world, and there was jubilation he experienced when he won three times on the PGATour in 1984, including a signature victory at the World Series of Golf.
Watson followed that wonderful season by being runner-up to Andy North at the 1985 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills Country Club, near Detroit, and in fact Watson might have won had he not been penalized for letting a putt during the final round hang on the lip for more than 10 seconds before it finally fell in. Still, Watson seemed headed for a long and successful career.
But it all changed with one swing. Late in 1985, Watson was leading the Goodyear Classic in South Africa when his ball landed in the rough. Watson grabbed a 9-iron in order to play the ball back into the fairway, but he didn't see part of a tree stump that was just below his ball. Watson hit the stump, and though he held on to win the event, his game was never the same.
"That one swing changed my life," Watson said. Not only did Watson suffer whiplash, there also was nerve damage as well as a punctured disc. Problem was, Watson didn't know the true extent of his injuries for years to come. All he knew was that he couldn't play the game like he used to -- and there were no guarantees he would even be able to play at all.
"I'll never forget being told by a doctor that I had to have surgery and that I would never play competitive golf again," Watson said. "That was tough to hear. But I'm very stubborn and single-minded when it comes to things."
Watson underwent surgery to repair a tendon, transpose a nerve and fix the cartilage in his right wrist. Remember, this was long before the days of arthroscopic surgery and all the other advances in medicine today's athletes enjoy.
Watson then began a cycle of rehabilitation, exercise and trying to play competitively. Every time he would seem to make some progress, he would start experiencing more pain and have to stop. Although he somehow finished second in a PGATour event in 1987 and 1991, the medical problems wouldn't go away. He made less than $17,000 during his last two full seasons on the PGATour.
"There were times when I knew I was going to have to do something else in life," he said.
Then things got worse. With his game and body both in tatters, he got divorced. With no more playing status, Watson had few options. His buddy, Leadbetter, gave him a job giving lessons.
"I was just trying to find a way to keep Denis in the game," said Leadbetter. "It seemed like everything had gone wrong for him that could." But Watson's life almost miraculously turned around, and Leadbetter unwittingly played a role in it. A high-powered trial lawyer in Chicago named Susan Loggans wanted to get serious about golf, so she wanted Leadbetter to come to her house and give her lessons. Leadbetter declined the offer, but eventually Watson said he would take her on as a student.
Little did Watson know that six months later he would start dating Loggans -- their first date was to the 1997 Ryder Cup in Spain -- and they would eventually get married and have five kids (including a pair of twins). Loggans proved to be the perfect mate for Watson. Not only did she have the financial resources to get him through the tough times, she convinced Watson he shouldn't give up on his dream to play golf professionally.
"We would play golf together, and it was clear to me that Denis had an unusual talent," Loggans said. "As a person who believes in greatness, I thought it would be a waste of his talent if he didn't play. I just felt that the major reason he wasn't playing was because he had so much bad luck. If he had happiness in his life, maybe that would free him up to play again."
Loggans did more than motivate Watson; she also got involved in mapping out his schedule. Last year the family was supposed to vacation in the Florida Keys because he wasn't eligible for a Champions Tour event during a five-week stretch, but she realized there was a Nationwide Tour event in Valdosta, Ga., where he became the second-oldest player to make a cut on that tour (Jack Nicklaus is the oldest).
Loggans also convinced her husband to take a quick detour to Kiawah Island to play The Ocean Course before the Senior PGA Championship. It proved to be a wise decision.
"We went around and played it every morning, even though it was in the 30s most of that week," Loggans said. "When it was over, Denis said, 'I can handle that course.'"
Watson moved into contention during last year's Senior PGAChampionship with rounds of 71-71-68. But he still trailed leader Eduardo Romero by two shots with six holes to play. After Romero bogeyed the 13th, everything changed at the par-3 14th, where Romero double-bogeyed and Watson birdied to take his first lead. Watson bogeyed the 15th but bounced back with a birdie at 16. He finished with two pars and a two-shot victory -- his first since winning at Las Vegas in 1984. No wonder he couldn't stop talking during the press conference afterward.
"Winning the Senior PGA was the most spectacular thing to happen to me in golf," Watson said. "It validated my desire to be a golf professional."
Watson also won another Champions Tour event last year, the Boeing Classic, going birdie-eagle in a playoff, and finished fourth on the tour's money list with $1.29 million -- more than he made in his career on the PGA Tour ($1.28 million).
Earlier this year he made a trip to the winner's circle, shooting a final-round 65 and then outlasting Brad Bryant and Loren Roberts in a playoff to take the AT&T Champions Classic in Valencia, Calif.
For making such an incredible comeback, Watson was rewarded by being named the winner of the Ben Hogan Award by the Golf Writers Association of America, an honor given annually to a person who remains active in golf despite a physical handicap or serious illness.
"You don't aspire to win the Ben Hogan Award when you start your career," Watson said. "This really puts a big cap on my struggles."
His peers appreciate what Watson has gone through. They know how easy it would have been to give up on the game and find something else to do with his life.
"This just shows how much talent Denis has," said fellow Zimbabwe native Nick Price, a World Golf Hall of Famer. "I haven't played well the last couple of years and it hasn't been much fun. I can't imagine what it would be like to go through that for 10 or 15 years."
When Watson looks back on his struggles, he insists there are few regrets or what-ifs. He knows he wouldn't be in the wonderful spot he's in today without the sometimes rocky journey.
"If all those things hadn't happened, I probably never would have met Susan and we wouldn't have these five wonderful kids (he also has three children from his first marriage)," Watson said. "I might have won a bunch of tournaments but had a miserable life."
Craig Dolch covers golf for The Palm Beach Post in Florida. This story appears courtesy of the 70th Senior PGA Championship Journal.