Tom Watson is beaming. We’re seated on a plush, leather couch in the clubhouse at Muirfield Village Golf Club on the eve of the 2019 Memorial Tournament in May, and he’s spouting on about his new passion, cutting, a sport I know less than nothing about. It sounds riveting, but there’s just one problem: It is as if he’s speaking a foreign language I don’t understand. So, he gives me the Cliffs Notes version – cutting is a Western-style equestrian event rooted in ranching in which a horse and rider handle cattle during a 2 1⁄2-minute performance. Judges score a run on a scale from 60 to 80, but unlike golf the higher the number the better.
“My best is a 74,” he says. “That’s like shooting 66 in golf.”
Watson recognizes a look of confusion is still spread across my face and decides he has just the solution. He digs in his pocket, pulls out his phone, swipes and clicks a few times and, voila, he’s turned into Tony Romo breaking down video of a cutting competition.
“This was my wife this last weekend,” he says. “This is what we do.”
Watson, 70 years young now, swells with pride over wife Hilary’s ability to separate a single cow from the herd as if she’d just birdied 18 to win a major. He flashes his gap-toothed grin, the same one that shined brightest when he walked off the 18th green at Turnberry shoulder to shoulder with Jack Nicklaus after outlasting him at the 1977 British Open. The one we saw after he chipped in for birdie at the 17th hole in the final round of the 1982 U.S. Open and danced around the green, lifting his arms toward the sky in jubilation and pointing at caddie Bruce Edwards and mouthing the words, “I told you so,” as he broke Nicklaus’ heart again. It was the same broad, gleaming smile that Watson sported when he sat in front of the assembled media after losing a four-hole playoff to Stewart Cink at the 2009 British Open at the age of 59 and broke the silence by declaring, “Hey, fellas, this isn’t a funeral, you know.”
That smile disappeared moments later when Watson’s phone buzzed and interrupted his dissertation on the finer points of cutting. It was Hilary calling, and I could sense it was important. As Tom answered, his lips pressed into a thin line. Worry creased his face. He listened, and as the meaning of those words soaked in, he gritted his teeth as he attempted, by sheer will, to force tears back into their ducts. It was already too late. He lowered his gaze but not enough to hide a stream of tears flowing down his face. The great Tom Watson was crying, and for good reason.
I heard him say, “I love you,” a few times before hanging up, wiping his red-rimmed eyes and explaining that his wife, who had been waging a war with pancreatic cancer since Halloween 2017, had received a glowing report from her doctor.
“Her levels are great,” Watson said, a half-smile playing on his lips again at hearing his prayers answered.
And with that, Watson flipped a switch and picked up our conversation where he had left off. Only I wasn’t ready to continue. I had just witnessed the eight-time major champion, one of the fiercest competitors and a man with an unusual mixture of toughness and kindness, at his most vulnerable. He looked like he could use a hug. I reached across and patted his hand and said, “Tom, let’s take a minute. I know I need one.”
In this moment, it seemed Hilary could win an unwinnable stalemate with the great scourge of our day. She had made it through another round in her bout with one of the world’s deadliest cancers. When I think back to all the dramatic moments in golf that I witnessed last year – Tiger Woods winning the Masters included – it is seeing this softer side of Tom, the loving husband with his leaky eyes, that surely will reside in permanent deposit in my memory bank.
That is why the news hit me like a bucket of cold water when three months later Hilary’s cancer had returned. Damn you, cancer. As Tom told me recently, only 6 percent of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer live five or more years. On Nov. 27, the night before Thanksgiving, Hilary took her last breath. She was 63.
The last several months have included tears of a different sort. His close friend, NBC/Golf Channel’s David Feherty, visited Watson at his home in late March after the Valspar Championship was canceled and ended up on a gentle horse named Diva. Feherty chokes up as he remembers Hilary, whom he first met in South Africa more than 40 years ago, and says of Tom and Hilary’s more than 20-year union, “It’s like they waited half their lives to find each other.”
Watson and Feherty took a long car ride together and talked. Feherty, who lost his son to drug addiction in 2017, knows heartbreak all too well. He told Watson it was natural for the pain to still be raw and said a good cry, “to let the poison out,” is healthy. I heard him say, “I love you,” a few times before hanging up, wiping his red-rimmed eyes and explaining that his wife, who had been waging a war with pancreatic cancer since Halloween 2017, had received a glowing report from her doctor.
Life must go on, and as Tom imagined the future without the love of his life,
it would’ve been easy to pour himself into golf, his safety net. But even before coronavirus wreaked havoc on professional golf’s schedule, Watson planned to play in just four tournaments this season, including the Watson Challenge, which he hosts in Kansas City for the area’s best amateurs and pros.
Instead, in his time of need, Watson found solace in the warm embrace of the cutting community and its circuit of events, where in cutting-mad states like Texas, if you don’t like a competition being held Friday, just drive an hour in either direction and there will be another Saturday. Watson can’t get enough of it, and in a sport where he’s very much a novice, he found a coal of desire still burned in his gut: to top the lifetime earnings among PGA Tour pros in cutting.
“I’ve gotta pass Hal Sutton,” Watson says. “Hal made $42,000, and I’m up to about $28,000 now, so my goal is to pass him.”
Is there anything that more perfectly personifies Watson, the hard-nosed competitor, than this?
“He’s a winner, born and bred,” Feherty says. “If he was one of two flies, he’d want to be the first one up the wall.”
Hilary Watson was a competitor too. She qualified to represent Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the long jump, high jump and hurdles at the 1976 Olympic Games, only to have her country barred by the IOC from competing because of apartheid. Born June 19, 1956, in Fort Victoria (now known as Masvingo), Rhodesia, Hilary’s fondness for horses grew throughout her childhood as she rode for pleasure and in show competitions.
It wasn’t until after she married Tom in 1999 (both were previously divorced, with Hilary married to South African touring pro Denis Watson – no relation) that they in 2002 visited Windward Stud ranch in Purcell, Oklahoma, the breeding farm of renowned showman Frank Merrill, and Hilary climbed on the back of a world-champion cutting horse. It opened a door to a new arena in her life. As a measure of her devotion to the sport, in 2004 she helped reinstate cutting in Kansas City’s American Royal Horse and Livestock Show.
Initially, Tom attended her events as cheerleader and photographer. She teased him endlessly that he couldn’t wear any of her buckles, the typical trophy awarded at cutting events, because they had to be earned. Tom is intellectually curious about all sorts of things, earning a pilot’s license and excelling at photography. He’s a voracious reader and an avid bird watcher, and the longer he sat in the stands watching Hilary, the more he craved to be in the show pen himself. In typical Tom fashion, he jumped with both feet into the ocean “without a life preserver.”
“That’s what you’re supposed to do in life, I think,” he told Quarter Horse News.
Tom set out to become a horseman, learning to ride at the couple’s Kansas farm. His cutting career got off to an inauspicious start. Just 10 days into training at a ranch in Weatherford, Texas, his practice horse went lame with a double tear in the stifle. Watson explained that’s the area where the tibia meets the femur, the bone that extends upward to the hip and is analogous to the human knee.
“When you tear a stifle, you’re done as a horse,” he says. “So Gavin Jordan, our trainer and a close family friend, found out about it, and he calls Hilary and said, ‘I’m sending Tom a horse.’ ”
He was going to need one, because Hilary had a thing about Tom riding her good horses. They were off limits. Jordan didn’t send just any horse; he sent one belonging to his wife. Cutting is a sport where competitors change horses like golfers change putters, and usually the price keeps escalating as a competitor advances through the ranks. Cosmopolitan Cat, or Cosmo for short, arrived from California shortly thereafter and the transaction went something like this: “I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to pay you something for this horse,’ ” Tom recounts. “Gavin would hear nothing of it. He said, ‘No, I don’t want anything for the horse.’ I said, ‘I’m going to pay you a dollar for this horse.’ He said, ‘OK, I’ll take a dollar,’ and he gave the dollar to his wife.”
Tom resumed training and eventually began showing in 2017. If cutting adopted a handicap system in the spirit of golf, Watson figured he was about a 40 handicap initially. But he made steady improvement – he says he’s been as low as a 13 – just as he sanded down the rough edges of his golf game long before.
In winter 2016, Tom achieved a milestone of sorts at the $2,000 Limited Rider in Carthage, Missouri, cashing a check for $418. He’s tasted victories big and small in golf, 70-odd trophies during a Hall of Fame career, but he savored these winnings as if he’d hit the Powerball jackpot. He couldn’t wait to call his trainer with the news.
“You’re the only cutter in the world that has a horse that’s worth 418 times what you paid for it,” Jordan said.
Before long, he earned an achievement buckle for earning over $2,000, and another for a top-10 finish in a show in early 2019. But he refused to even try them on. Watson never has let his celebrity status change his manner, and after receiving these tokens of progress in the saddle, he told Jordan, “I’m not wearing a buckle unless it says champion on it.”
Tom guesses Hilary was nearly a scratch handicap in cutting, good enough to advance to the Unlimited Amateur finals at all of the National Cutting Horse Association Triple Crown shows. Despite undergoing chemotherapy and other debilitating treatments, she earned more than $72,000 in 2019, or more than Tom made in official money on the PGA Tour Champions. He jokes that she was “the breadwinner,” and her trophies included the NCHA Summer Spectacular and the Pacific Coast Futurity.
“She could get it,” he says. “She could flat get it.”
When she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Jordan spearheaded a movement amongst the cutting community to wear purple, the official color of pancreatic cancer awareness, in Hilary’s honor. At the NCHA Futurity at the Cowtown Coliseum, located in the heart of the Fort Worth Stockyards and the equivalent of a golf major, Tom accepted the Mary Kingsbury Amateur Sportsmanship Award for extraordinary contributions to the sport of cutting on Hilary’s behalf. Every attendee wore purple.
“She made a significant impact in a lot of people’s lives,” Tom says. “She loved the sport with a great passion, and I grew to love it with a passion myself.”
On Nov. 3, a little more than three weeks before Hilary passed away, she watched the livestream as Tom won the Waco Texas Cutting Futurity Amateur Derby with a score of 221 aboard Double Cat Flash, a 4-year-old gelding that she previously wouldn’t let him ride.
“I went around the corner and cried like a baby,” Watson says.
In that moment, the strain of the last few years fell away. He finally experienced the euphoria that his beloved wife lived for, and before long a secondary, but still blissful, realization struck him.
“Now I can wear a buckle,” he says of his trophy, a rectangular-shaped buckle that says “Champion” in gold lettering along the bottom behind a silver background.
Yet nothing can fill the hole in his heart these past four months. Time will help ease but never quite erase the pain of losing a loved one. What he’s found is that horse cutting is the world in which he now belongs, amongst a circle of friends who have adopted him into their close-knit community. It’s a double-edged sword whereby he feels closest to the memory of his wife but misses having her there to spur him on.
“This is my life now,” he says. “There was a fork in the road and I took it. I’m kind of going off into the horse world right now and I’m really enjoying that, but I’m still a golfer. I don’t have any pretense that I’m a cutting-horse rider, but I’m trying to learn.”
That first belt buckle was only a step toward achieving his goal. Watch out, Hal Sutton. Tom only trails by $14,000 in career earnings and he’s hot on your trail
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