At the 1977 British Open, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus started leaving the pack behind in the third round and staged The Duel in the Sun, blistering Turnberry over the final two days. Watson’s 2-foot putt on the 72nd hole clinched the championship, and he’ll never forget what happened after Nicklaus shook his hand.
“He grabbed me by then neck, put a half-nelson on me and told me he gave it his best shot and it wasn’t good enough,” Watson said. “Him saying that, the best player in the world, it meant a lot to me.”
Similar stories of sportsmanship and respect were at the heart of Wednesday’s second annual NAIA Champions of Character Foundation Awards Luncheon at the Kansas City Convention Center.
The event honored athletes and coaches who reaffirm the ideals espoused by the NAIA, which was the first national organization to invite historically black colleges as members and the group with the longest continuous national basketball tournament.
Among the winners were Shawnee Mission West football coach Tim Callaghan, who navigated his program through the aftermath of the tragic death of wide receiver Andre Maloney in 2013; Blue Valley West twins Bianca and Francesca Viazzoli, who founded Twinspire.org to inspire a passion for volunteering; and Nathane Simniok, a College of the Ozarks basketball player who in a game took credit for knocking a ball out of bounds when the officials called it the other way.
His team lost the game, but Simnoik’s coach, Steve Shepherd, said his player “did the right thing.”
Watson had his own loss to handle earlier this month. He was captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team that lost to Europe 161/2-111/2, and he was criticized for his player selection and lineups.
“It’s easy to deal with a loss when it’s just you,” Watson said. “Trying to manage a team, there’s another element that’s different to deal with. To deal with that was more difficult than a personal defeat.”
Watson said the experience could change the way the captain and team is selected, but the bottom line was the U.S. team wasn’t good enough at the 40th Ryder Cup in Scotland.
“They (the Europeans) played better golf,” Watson said. “That’s the bottom line. That’s the old-school way I look at it. They played better and as a result they won. Give them credit.”
The loss left Watson’s record as Ryder Cup captain at 1-1. His 1993 team posted the last U.S. victory in Europe and it marked the last time the U.S. retained the cup, having lost seven of nine Cups since.
When the topic turned to the Royals, who at the time were hours away from meeting the Giants in game seven of the World Series, Watson said he’s seen the characteristics that were honored on Wednesday in his hometown team.
“You look at this team and nobody gave them much chance to be in the World Series during the season,” Watson said. “They had the bones of a good baseball team but a belief from Dayton Moore, Ned Yost and the players themselves. And it’s jelled.”
Among his favorite moments of the postseason run: Billy Butler’s stolen base against the Angels and Kelvin Herrera’s first plate appearance of the season, against the Giants, when he swung while stepping backwards. The Royals’ bench had fun with both.
“They’re playing the game like kids, and the joy really comes out with this team,” Watson said.
NAIA award winners
▪ Company of Character: Geiger Ready Mix, Leavenworth, Bill Geiger, CEO
▪ Citizen of Character: Paul Barnds, volunteer, Children’s Mercy Hospital
▪ Coach of Character: Tim Callaghan, Shawnee Mission West
▪ High School Student-Athlete of Character: Bianca and Francesca Viazzoli, Blue Valley West
▪ Collegiate Student-Athlete of Character: Nathane Simniok, College of the Ozarks