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Watson’s Winning Ways: Adapting to the Elements

watson nicklaus featured2

Tom Watson is considered one of the greatest golfers of all time. During the 1970s and 1980s, he dominated the sport, winning eight major championships and heading the PGA Tour money list five times. Watson’s Major titles include 5 British Open victories (1975, 1977, 1980, 1982, 1983), 2 Masters wins (1977, 1981), and one U.S. Open championship in 1982. In addition to his success in majors, Watson won 39 events on the PGA Tour. He was named PGA Player of the Year 6 times and led the tour in money earned five times. Watson was renowned for his putting skills and ability to play well under pressure.

watson ballybunion

His friendly rivalry with Jack Nicklaus was legendary, as he frequently bested Nicklaus in Major championships; the most notable was the head-to-head matchup dubbed the “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry in 1977 and again at the US Open at Pebble Beach in 1982, where Watson holed out on 17 to claim the win. Watson was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1988 for his outstanding career. Even in his later years, Watson remained competitive, nearly winning the 2009 British Open at age 59. He left a lasting legacy as one of golf’s greatest champions.

In this post, we’ll look at Watson’s resilience and ability to deal with the elements, adapt his game to different conditions, and what the average player can take from this and apply. We’ll also look at some books, audiobooks, and instructional videos to take this lesson further.

Along the way, we’ll link and embed some highlights of Watson at the Opens (US and British). For more on Links Golf and The Open, see our post “Golf 101: Links Golf – Celebrating Golf’s Timeless Terrain” and our series “Legendary Links.”

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Tom Watson’s Career Accomplishments

  • Won PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 1972
  • Won his first major at the 1975 Open Championship at Carnoustie at age 25
  • Ranked #1 in the Official World Golf Rankings in 1978 and remained in the top spot until 1982
  • 39 PGA Tour wins, tied for 10th all-time
  • 8 major championship wins, including 5 British Opens, 2 Masters, and 1 U.S. Open
  • 6-time PGA Tour Player of the Year (1977-1980, 1982, 1984)
  • 5-time PGA Tour leading money winner (1977-1980, 1984)
  • Played on 4 Ryder Cup teams and captained 2 winning Ryder Cup teams (won in 1993)
  • At age 59, he nearly won the 2009 Open Championship before losing in a playoff at Turnberry
  • Only player to shoot 67 or better in all 4 majors over 4 different decades (1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s)
claret jug tom watson golf

When I first picked up the game in the 1990s, I started with instructional videos, but a love of sports history soon made me graduate with books and videos on the game’s greats. Starting with Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, Golf My Way, and soon found Tom Watson, whom I had first watched with casual interest at the Open at Muirfield in 1987.

I bought and still have this VHS called “Beating the Best” from the R&A, a compilation of highlights from Watson at the Open, celebrating his five titles. Little did they know he would almost add another in 2009! I can’t find that video anywhere online, but apparently, it can be had for $3 at the link I gave you above.

Needless to say, I was hooked immediately. The stark contrast between the parkland courses we see every week on Tour and play here at home in the US was a stark contrast to what I was watching. After that, I devoured everything I could on the history of links golf and the Open Championship. I used to watch the compilation of the “Duel in the Sun” (video below) all the time and marvel at Nicklaus and Watson lapping the field at Turnberry, the crowds, the scenery, all of it (dig the clothes and 70s music)! That time inspired my love of golf, and Watson will always be special to me. I cried when he bogeyed 18 and lost that playoff in 2009. What a story that would have been. Amazing nonetheless.

tom watson golf win

Playing the Course

Initially, Watson did not enjoy links golf when he first experienced it at Carnoustie in 1975 due to a frustrating practice round and strict course access rules. Despite winning the Claret Jug that year, his appreciation for the game’s challenges on the ground and in the air developed gradually. It wasn’t until a stormy round in 1981 at Dornoch, played in sideways rain with Sandy Tatum, that Watson’s attitude transformed from mere acceptance to genuine enjoyment, marking the moment he truly fell in love with links golf. Watson would even go on to serve as captain of Ballybunion Golf Club.

Tom Watson was renowned for excelling in adverse weather conditions, especially the wind, rain, and cold often faced at the Open. He emphasized sound fundamentals like proper setup, grip, alignment, and swing technique as the foundation for playing well in poor conditions. Concentration, confidence, and a positive attitude were critical to Watson’s resilience against the elements. He carefully studied wind patterns and planned his strategy accordingly.

Watson displayed remarkable patience, persistence, and short-game skills to score well despite the conditions. His mastery provides great lessons on the techniques, tactics, and mental approach required to play your best golf, even when the weather is far from ideal. Watson’s skills and strategic philosophy in wind, rain, and cold conditions offer inspiration and practical tips for all golfers seeking to develop resilience against the elements.

tom watson golf drive open

Split the Uprights

Watson visualizes football goalposts in the fairway or on the green to help with his aim and alignment. The goalposts represent the right and left limits for his shot. He sets the goalpost width to match his normal or desired shot shape and accounts for wind conditions (more on that below).

Rather than picking an exact target, Watson aims to hit through the middle of the goalposts to “make a field goal.” This gives him a zone to swing through instead of one specific point. The goalpost visualization allows Watson to align his body parallel to his target line instead of directly at the target, improving his accuracy.

Overall, the football goalpost analogy provides Watson with a visual “target area” to swing through that considers his natural shot shape and wind, helping him hit more fairways and greens. Hailing from Kansas City, I’m assuming he’s a Chiefs fan, and it’s worth mentioning that our partners, Cutter & Buck, have a great selection of NFL-themed golf apparel if you want to support your own team on the course.

goalposts tom watson golf

Playing in the Wind: Move the Goalposts

Watson has produced a series of instructional videos (you can find them on Prime Video) and multiple must-read books: “The Timeless Swing” and “Getting Up and Down,” where he shares lessons learned from a lifetime in golf. The key is to club intelligently, control trajectory, aim appropriately, and swing smoothly and within yourself in windy conditions. Stay mentally engaged, and don’t fight the wind. It affects everyone.

For more ideas on teeing the ball and playing in the elements, see our posts “Optimizing Tee Height: The Evidence-Based Guide” and “Course Management: Underclubbing is Hurting Your Score.” Preparation and course management are crucial when the wind picks up. Here are some of Watson’s thoughts on how wind affects golf shots with strategies for playing in windy conditions:

  • Headwinds hurt distance more than tailwinds help. A 10mph headwind can reduce carry by 17 yards for a typical tour pro drive.
  • Crosswinds affect shot shape and direction. A 20mph crosswind can push a shot 20-30 yards offline. Aim and allow for extra curvature. More on this below.
  • To control distance into a headwind, club up and make smoother, slower swings to reduce backspin and ballooning.
  • Downwind, club down and allow for extra distance. Be cautious of extra rollout on approach shots.
  • On short shots, headwinds reduce rollout while tailwinds increase rollout. Adjust landing targets and “goalposts” accordingly.
  • On all shots, focus on making solid contact to reduce spin and allow the wind to affect ballflight naturally.
  • Be prepared to aim off line depending on wind direction. Don’t try to overly manipulate shot shape.
tom watson golf

Lower Ballflight into the Wind

In “The Timeless Swing,” Watson calls out a 5-iron approach shot that he hit at the 10th hole at Turnberry in the 2009 Open. Playing an approach to a long par 4 with water left, he played the ball back in his stance and took more club. He played the ball 30 feet short of the green and let it roll up in proximity for an easy 2-putt par. It’s not necessarily something you’ll see on the Parkland fairways in the States, but the lesson is still a good one.

To hit it lower, Watson moves the ball back in his stance, raises his right shoulder at address, widens his stance, and shortens the follow-through. You could call it a variation of a punch shot or Tiger Woods’ “stinger.” Take more club than usual.

tom watson golf britishopen wind

Crosswind Adjustments

Playing golf in heavy crosswinds requires a counterintuitive adjustment in aim and strategy. As Watson learned the hard way, our natural inclination is not to allow enough for a strong wind’s effect. Competing in the 2008 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, Watson faced fierce crosswinds up to 35 mph. On the par-4 11th hole, he aimed the center of his “goalposts” at the right edge of the fairway, expecting his ball to curve left. But the wind grabbed his tee shot and hooked it wildly into the left rough. The very next day, with the same howling wind, Watson aimed an incredible 40 yards right of the fairway’s edge.

Though it seemed extreme, this time, his ball held its line and found the short grass. Tom Watson realized you must visually exaggerate your aim adjustment in heavy crosswinds. It will feel uncomfortably offline, but that’s the key to handling shots pushed way off course by the wind. Your mind can barely comprehend the effect, so you must aim farther than seems plausible. Watson learned this vital links strategy through difficult experiences. But that radical aim adjustment soon became instinctual for one of history’s greatest wind players.

tom watson golf wind posts

Further Reading, Viewing, and Listening

The Secret of Golf
by Joe Posnanski

Summary: The Secret of Golf explores the complex relationship between golf legends Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, chronicling their journey from rivals to friends over decades of battling for supremacy in major championships; Posnanski provides an intimate look at the two icons through firsthand interviews and accounts of their most memorable showdowns like the “Duel in the Sun” at the 1977 British Open; The book reveals the secrets of their greatness, with lessons on strategy, mental approach, and insights into their personalities.

Duel in the Sun
by Michael Corcoran 

Summary: The 1977 British Open at Turnberry was an epic showdown between golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, with Watson prevailing by one stroke after they battled over the final 36 holes; Michael Corcoran brings this dramatic moment in golf history to life through interviews with participants and evocative details about the Open’s rich tradition and origins; Duel in the Sun recounts Watson rising to defeat Nicklaus and claim his spot at the pinnacle of golf.

Lessons of a Lifetime – Video Series
by Tom Watson

Summary: Over the course of multiple instructional videos, Tom Watson shares the skills and techniques he has learned over his long career, covering everything from grip and setup fundamentals to advanced shot-shaping and course management strategies; Watson combines clear explanations, on-course demonstrations, and drills to provide golfers of all abilities with a comprehensive and practical education in the game of golf from one of its greatest champions; Spanning basic skills to nuanced tactics, Watson’s Lessons of a Lifetime aims to help golfers improve their games and get more enjoyment from this lifelong sport.

Getting Up and Down
by Tom Watson

Summary: Tom Watson’s Getting Up and Down provides instruction on short game shots from 40 yards and in, explaining his techniques for putting, chipping, pitching, and bunker play. Watson shares anecdotes from tournaments to illustrate how he executed specific shots, and includes tips on shot selection, execution, and the mental approach. This classic golf instruction book has sold over 100,000 copies by breaking down the intricacies of the short game into simple, actionable advice.

The Timeless Swing
by Tom Watson

Summary: In The Timeless Swing, Tom Watson draws on the knowledge from his extraordinary golf career to provide lessons to help golfers of all skill levels, using time-tested drills, tips, and exercises to cover everything from fundamentals like grip to advanced techniques like swinging in wind. Watson complements the lessons with personal anecdotes, stunning photos, and key concepts like visualizing a football goalpost as the target, making this an indispensable guide to improving your golf game from one of the most respected players in history. With a foreword by Jack Nicklaus, The Timeless Swing aims to help golfers play their best and enjoy the game more.

Golf My Way
by Jack Nicklaus

Summary: Golf My Way provides a comprehensive overview of Jack Nicklaus’s approach to every aspect of the game, from swing fundamentals to course management to the mental side of golf. Nicklaus explains his unorthodox upright swing in detail, advising golfers to develop a technique matched to their natural abilities rather than copy a rigid model. He shares wisdom on shot selection, practice routines, concentration techniques, and strategically playing to one’s strengths on each golf course. While some advice is outdated, Nicklaus imparts timeless golf insights on work ethic, confidence, and optimizing performance under pressure. Golf My Way offers a fascinating look inside the mind and methods of one of history’s greatest golfers.

The 150th Open
by Iain Carter

Summary: The 150th Open is the official book celebrating the sesquicentennial (seriously, that’s a thing) of golf’s oldest major championship, produced in partnership with The R&A and capturing the history and stories that make The Open unique.  From its 1860 origins in Prestwick to today’s iconic venues, the book chronicles The Open through archival images and interviews with past champions, reflecting on characters, courses, and moments that have defined this revered event over 150 years. The comprehensive narrative and visual history in The 150th Open commemorates The Open Championship’s illustrious past and enduring prestige as golf’s most beloved tournament.

Videos and Highlights

1977 Duel in the Sun
Watson Wins at Muirfield 1982
Watson wins at Troon 1982

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