Vahe Gregorian

Adventurous Kansas City golf legend Tom Watson basks in afterglow of his heyday

Along about last July, not-so-coincidentally weeks after playing in his final Masters, the notion suddenly came to Tom Watson:

 ‘I need to learn to be a horseman. I have to understand how to ride a horse properly, understand the buttons of a horse,’ ” Watson recalled in his Overland Park office on Thursday.

Not that it was a random thought. He ultimately wanted to compete in cutting-horse competitions like the ones his wife, Hilary, has been thriving in for several years.

Now he’s consumed with it, in the last few months going from his early “career earnings” of $68.20 to recently receiving a buckle from the National Cutting Horse Association in recognition of winning more than $1,000 in prize money.

When he’s not seeking to tame that new craft, Watson ponders navigating a busier-than-ever calendar brimming with charitable work for causes dear to him so he can embrace his theoretical bucket list.

At the top is driving an RV around the country to see all the national parks, where he wants to take just the right photographs in just the right light even if means staying days beyond what any itinerary says.

“Until you finally get it,” he said. “But the main thing is to see the country.”

He’s seen that and the world, of course, but most typically in a gauzy way — airports to hotel rooms to golf courses to restaurants to the airport, again and again and again and again.

“I never spent the time to so-called ‘smell the flowers,’ ” he said.

Until now, anyways, as he breathes in much more.

Sitting on a bench at 14,000 feet awaiting the “go” signal to jump out of the U.S. Army Parachute Team’s Twin Otter, tethered to a man who had done 8,000 jumps for the outfit also known as the Golden Knights, Watson felt not trepidation but anticipation.

 ‘What’s going to happen now? When is it going to happen?’ ” he remembered thinking before fulfilling a longtime dream in April.

Then Sgt. First Class Joe Jones stood, told him to get to the door, and said, “I’m going to give you one shove, pull you back, and then the second shove we’ll go out.”

Next thing you know, feeling “the U.S. Army on my back,” Watson absorbed the exhilaration of a freefall for nearly a minute, at one point reaching what he was told was 120 mph before the chute opened at 5,000 feet.

Minutes later, he touched down standing and laughing.

When they asked him what the jump was like, he said “wasn’t long enough!”

In his first year since playing in his last Masters, 50 years after he won his first Missouri Amateur and catapulted to a career that chisels his image onto the figurative Mt. Rushmore of Kansas City sports icons, Watson feels no such sensation about his accomplishments.

For one thing, he’ll remind you, he’s not retired from golf. He’s on the PGA Champions Tour after all, and this very weekend he is competing in The Watson Challenge at Milburn Country Club.

He still wants to win, still yearns for that perfect shot in the heat of competition in the sport in which he distinguished himself with eight major championships and an abiding grace.

But he also knows he’s 67 years old and past his prime in the game.

So his priorities have changed, and now he’s gone from always harboring other interests to exploring more of them.

He still works to stay prepared and in shape, in fact losing so much weight this year from 190 pounds to 175 that the other day he picked up 10 slacks and shorts that had been taken in about two inches.

For that matter, a photographer recently snapped a picture of him in Augusta flexing his bicep for Jason Day.

(As it happened, Watson was responding to Day’s question about his cutting-horse endeavor. Watson was joking with him that “you really get strong” but actually pointing out a biceps injury.)

Just the same …

“Honestly, I’m not as prepared as I used to be,” he said. “But it’s by choice.”

Because he’s interested in a lot of other things and didn’t need to be shoved into the freefall of life after the limelight — a disconcerting leap for many but one for which he was girded.

“The truth doesn’t hurt me or make me envious,” Watson said.

Besides, he’s too busy for that in a new prime, now, the one of life, a time when he’s moved to be reflective but also seizing his days in an entirely new way.

“Part of enriching your own life is to still want to learn about things,” said Watson, who also remains invigorated by the opportunity to help so many causes, particularly ALS and Children’s Mercy Hospital and various combat veterans groups. “Part of being human is to help other people who can’t help themselves. There’s a human empathy there.”

He paused and smiled and added, “We really ought to be more like dogs. We really should be. Trusting and loving, and they don’t expect anything but love from you.”

Even if Watson doesn’t overtly express it, this new phase of contemplation of what life holds coincides with other forces that no doubt make him conscious of the preciousness of each moment.

Consider the death last year of Arnold Palmer, with whom Watson first played in an exhibition as a 15-year-old at Brookridge Golf & Country Club and over the years has called a “hero” and “father figure.”

That day in 1965, Watson recalled, Palmer took him “under his wing” and kindly engaged him.

“No greater friend to the game of golf,” Watson likes to say about Palmer.

Between that and having a chance to play with Jack Nicklaus in Topeka as a 17-year-old, the already promising Watson had inspiration that stoked his imagination.

“A kid like me being able to play with the two best players in the word? Does that give you stars in your eyes?” he said, smiling. “Does that make you dream?”

When Palmer died in September, Watson posted on Twitter a photo of them from that day including the hashtagged words “LifeWellPlayed.”

Watson was prepared for the death of the ailing Palmer, with whom he sat at every Master’s dinner and knew in 2016 wouldn’t make it to another. And in a certain sense, he has an appreciation of the other end of the spectrum: Tiger Woods.

After becoming a phenomenon in the sport, Woods’ career has spiraled downward in a haze of personal troubles and injuries the past few years.

Last month, he was arrested and charged with driving under the influence.

Woods registered a 0.0 blood-alcohol level, at least in part backing his assertion that prescription drugs were the issue. That, though, has potential ramifications of its own.

Watson has been tempted to reach out to Woods, but he has hesitated for a specific reason.

“Just from my own experience, you have to want to do it yourself; you have to want to change things yourself. In yourself,” he said. “You have to want to. You have to be resigned to the fact that you can’t continue to do things that hurt you.

“You have to be resigned to that. And then you reach out for help.”

Watson is intentionally cryptic about his references to himself, declining to elaborate. In 1998, he told Sports Illustrated about his struggles with alcohol. But even as he prefers to keep specifics personal, he acknowledges that this work remains a priority.

“The program I’m in, ‘One day at a time’ is a very, very prominent theory and thought,” he said. “You take it one day at a time. That’s important. You can’t do anything about what happens before you, and you can’t do anything about what may happen ahead of you.

“It’s how you deal with the time in the present. … I wish I could have learned that earlier in life.”

He added, “The program has helped me, but the mistakes that I’ve made in my life, certainly there are regrets. How you deal with that is personal, but you go through life and you’re never immune to making wrong decisions — never — because you’re human.

“There’s a friend of mine in the program who says ‘I’m just trying to be the best flawed human being I can today.’ Which is just wonderful advice.”

In a wonderful, rich life.

“I’m lucky to have been able to play a game for a living — come on,” he said, laughing and adding, “I had tee times; you’ve got deadlines: Pass that line, and you’re dead, man.”

Now he has crossed a line of his own, though.

Not life after golf, exactly, but life enabled by it and a part of it, if no longer run by it.

It’s a pretty fine place to be, after all.

Whether it’s spent on horseback trying to make the “magic” of separating a cow from the herd … or up in the air with the Golden Knights … or hanging out with veterans like Brendan Morocco, a quadruple amputee in Iraq who received a bilateral arm transplant and in whose progress Watson has seen a symbol of hope in the world.

Whether it’s finally getting to see the Eisenhower Library or the Symphony in the Flint Hills or firing up an RV to get lost in America.

From out of the limelight, it turns out, Watson can bask in the afterglow.

“Having the opportunity to live a life that’s full,” he said, “it can’t be better than that.”

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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