On the morning of April 8, 2004, Tom Watson arrived at Augusta National for the opening round of the Masters.
It was 6:30 a.m. Watson would not tee off for another two hours. He was inside the champions’ locker room when he was told the sad news that he had prepared for months. His long-time caddy Bruce Edwards, at age 49, had succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Edwards had been diagnosed with the dreaded disease 15 months previously. Watson stood by his friend and did anything he could to help his caddy forge on.
Edwards had walked the fairways with Watson for 32 PGA Tour wins, including the 1982 U.S. Open victory at Pebble Beach. The final time they teamed up was at the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields near Chicago.
Edwards was six months into his battle with ALS. He was weakened by the disease, but lifted by his peers and most of all Watson. They opened with a 65 to snatch a share of the lead. It was perfect. Watson had a forum to lecture about ALS in the pressroom.
"Damn this disease, dammit," Watson said, with eyes watering.
"They are going to find a cure.”
Watson, who will captain the United States side at the 40th Ryder Cup at the Gleneagles Resort in Scotland this week, went on an ALS offensive long before the ice-bucket challenge became trendy.
Edward’s passing came the morning after he was feted at a dinner in which he was honoured with the Ben Hogan Award, given annually by the Golf Writers Association of America to the individual who continued to be active in golf despite a physical handicap or serious illness.
Watson, himself, was presented at the dinner with the Charlie Bartlett Award, given to a golfer for unselfish contributions to society.
He asked those in attendance not to shed a tear for his friend, but “let's celebrate his wonderful heart, not a mean bone in his body."
Watson still leaves an egg salad sandwich on the 13th tee at Augusta because that’s when Edwards traditionally snacked on one when he caddied.
Watson, golf’s ultimate competitor in his prime – when he won five British Opens, two Masters and a U.S. Open between 1975 and 1983 – has softened since watching his friend go through ALS.
He has engrossed himself in raising money for Driving4Life, the ALS Therapy Development Foundation in Cambridge, Mass. The "4" is symbolic of Gehrig's former uniform number.
Watson created The Bruce Edwards Foundation for ALS Research, which provides funds to medical research facilities dedicated to slowing the progression of and finding a cure for ALS. Watson made a promise to Edwards to continue to fight to find a cure for this fatal disease.
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Just because Watson has become a thoughtful, more caring person, don’t get the idea that his fierce competitive spirit has gone by the wayside.
At 65, he’s still a force on the 50-and-over Champions Tour. He made the cut competing against the game’s superstars at the U.S. Open in June. He lost to Stewart Cink in a playoff at the 2009 British Open at age 59.
"Come on fellas, this ain't a funeral you know," he said as he sat down in the press room after his incredible run at the Open championship five years ago came up a few inches short.
U.S. has struggled
At the Ryder Cup, it has been one funeral after another for the American side recently. The U.S. has watched the Europeans celebrate at seven of the last nine Ryder Cups.
That’s why the PGA of America tapped Watson two years ago to lead the U.S. for this Ryder Cup. He was hunting for pheasant in a South Dakota field when PGA of America president Ted Bishop phoned to see if Watson wanted the job.
He wanted it. He was sick of watching the Yanks fail to get the job done.
“I made it very clear to them,” Watson said earlier this week. “This trip is a redemption trip. Those players who played on that team [seven from 2012 are on this team] it’s time to make amends. It’s a motivation.
“I know our team is totally committed to bringing the cup back. I know that. And as captain I’m going to do everything I can to help them do that.”
Watson, an impressive 10-4-1 as a player in his four Ryder Cups, had not been to a Ryder Cup since he steered the U.S. to victory as its captain at the Belfry in England in 1993. It was the last time the U.S. has won in Europe.
“I think the captain, he's a person who inspires the team,” he said.
“My two jobs are to make the three captain's picks, and my job right now, along with my vice captains, is to team them up in the best possible way that we think we can win, just like [winning 2008 U.S. captain] Paul [Azinger] said.”
There was some criticism that Watson was too old to make tough decisions, that maybe he was out of touch and didn’t know today’s top players that well.
But that criticism has quieted. Bishop and the players have marvelled at the work Watson has put in.
When the Kansas City native guided the 1993 team, he sought out advice from then University of Kansas basketball coach Roy Williams on being a team leader.
This time around, Watson has chatted with not only past U.S. captains like Azinger, Tom Lehman, Corey Pavin, David Love III, Dave Stockton and Jack Nicklaus for their thoughts, he discussed team dynamics with University of Wisconsin football coach Bo Ryan.
“I asked him some questions about certain psychological parts of the game,” said Watson, a Stanford psychology graduate in 1971. “Can't go into detail with it, but I did and he gave me his unvarnished answers.
Watson, who played basketball and football growing up, values the team aspect of the Ryder Cup.
“Just the camaraderie, the joy that you had when you win as a team -- it's a feeling you never, ever forget, more so than your individual many times. And the losses, conversely, are worse.”
There is a belief that the Americans will be more a team with Watson in charge because he isn’t afraid to make the difficult decisions, compared to past captains like Lehman, Love and Pavin who were peers of the players when they were in charge.
Tiger’s absence could help U.S. team
There also is a belief that the U.S. side will be better off without an injured Tiger Woods, who has been on the losing side in six of his seven Ryder Cups. The last one he missed was in 2008 because of knee surgery and the U.S. won.
Watson is beloved in Scotland. He won four of his five Open Championships there and each of his three Senior British Open titles.
But the U.S. will be in tough.
Watson joked that he will lead the American fans in song when when the European supporters begin to sing, “Ole, ole.”
Watson said he will respond with the U.S. soccer chant.
“We believe that we can win,” he said.