Half of Tom Watson’s Grand Slam record is marred by victories using equipment later deemed illegal. Does this fact cast a shadow over the American’s legendary career? Before answering it, let us summarize in this first part the facts which take place two years apart. Best…
By Sebastien Brochu
Great rival of Jack Nicklaus, the American Tom Watson is recognized as one of the greatest golfers in history. In his 40-year career, he has notably won 8 Majors between 1975 and 1983. The youngest remember his feat at the 2009 Open where he almost won at the canonical age of 59.
His greatest period was at the end of the 1970s, when he was the best player in the world. But in these glorious times, was he favored by equipment deemed twice non-compliant? The question arises following the discovery of the American historian Connor T. Lewis who found several press articles from the time reporting two controversies tainting 4 major titles acquired in 1977 and 1982, his two best seasons.
First controversy in 1977
It all started in 1977, his first big year. Winner of the Masters then the British Open (the famous “Duel in the sun” by Turnberry), both won under the non-existent beard of Jack Nicklaus, he is trying to become the first player since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win 3 Majors in the same year. All specialists are convinced that he can achieve this at the US PGA which takes place in mid-August at Pebble Beach.
The too wide grooves of his clubs
It is therefore as a big favorite that the American approaches the tournament. But incredible news will stop the machine during its reconnaissance part. He learns that les fers Ram Tour Grind, the same ones that served for his previous victories, would be illegal! On his initiative – it is important to underline this – he had his own examined by PGA officials. Inspection result: the width of its grooves exceeds the allowable limitregulated for decades at 0.89 mm!
He is not the only one in this case: eight players are affected, including Gary Player et Ray Floyd who use the same Ram clubs. If the latter came with another completely legal spare series, Tom Watson does not have it. He then brought from his home in Kansas City an old series which is also considered non-compliant! We don’t know if it was used for his victories in previous years…
He borrows old clubs to compete in the US PGA
Still, having sung victory all year, Watson finds himself on the morning of the first lap very unprepared. Tired of war, he is lent irons by his compatriot Roger Maltbie who kept them in the trunk of his car: a 25-year-old Silver Scot series ! With a sandwedge borrowed from pro Leonard Thompson, his woods and his putter (conforming to them!), he has just enough time to try them out eight times at the practice before diving into the deep end…
Despite grips that were too thin and shafts that were too soft, he finished the tournament in 6th place, satisfied and relieved by this result. Especially relieved to learn that the authorities will not take away his victories acquired at the Masters and the Open, considering that Watson was unaware of the non-compliance of his clubs and that the latter were not considered illegal at the time of the facts. End of the controversy.
Second controversy in 1982
Finally, for this one, because another broke out five years later… Tom Watson returned to a certain domination in 1982. After a 5th place at the Masters, he won the US Open at… Pebble Beach and facing… Jack Nicklaus. His chip-in at 17 remains one of the most famous shots in history. A month later, he obtains his 4th Open facing Peter Oosterhuis and Nick Price. Here he is again launched in the quest for a 3rd Major in the same year…
Finally ranking 9th in the US PGA, he learned a few weeks later, in August, that the ball used since the start of the season is in turn deemed illegal! The manufacturer: again Ram… The USGA has in fact just ruled that the Ram Pro Tour B ball, played only by a few pros, is too small… by a few millimeters in diameter.
Tom Watson is still cleared
As in 1977, the authorities cleared Tom Watson of any cheating and refused a retroactive disqualification. The American will finally keep his 8 Majors on his list and he remains to this day one of the greatest players in history.
Does his legend find himself tarnished after these revelations? Despite the faults of the equipment manufacturer, a small doubt remains. To read in our second part… next week!
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