Tom Watson was hunting pheasant in South Dakota, supporting a Wounded Warriors outing, when he received a cellphone call from a stranger.
Not surprisingly, he didn’t want to take it.
Reluctantly, he did.
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“I hear, ‘Hello, this is Ted Bishop, PGA president,’” Watson recalled. “I said, ‘I’m a little busy right now. Let me call you back a little later.’”
Watson, winner of 39 PGA Tour events and eight major championships, did call back — and promptly forgot the caller’s name.
“That’s how our relationship started,” said Watson, who had no idea at the time that voice on other end belonged to a man who would, in short order, become a close friend.
On a special Tuesday night in Franklin, the strength of that friendship and the others that would evolve from it were on full display at The Legends of Indiana Golf Club, where three of professional golf’s brightest luminaries shared a stage — or rather, a long leather couch — to honor and reflect on Bishop’s tenure as 38th president of the PGA of America.
Organized by Horizon Planning Group, “An Intimate Evening with Golf Legends,” part of a two-day charity event at The Legends, brought together Watson, PGA Tour pro Steve Stricker, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem and Golfweek senior writer Alex Miceli for a “fireside chat” that touched on topics ranging from Bishop’s presidency to the pressures of the Ryder Cup to the demise of Tiger Woods’ game.
Seated leisurely on a couch at the front of a banquet room with 190 dinner guests, Watson, Stricker and Finchem — with Miceli emceeing — first reflected on Bishop’s term as PGA of America president, then in turn addressed the infamous 2014 Ryder Cup and opined on Woods’ stunning fall from the top of the golf world.
Each man applauded Bishop’s accomplishments as president, a two-year term that was cut a month short when he was removed from office last October for posting what many regarded as insensitive social media messages.
Controversy notwithstanding, Watson, Stricker, Finchem and Miceli stood by Bishop throughout and defined him as anything but a figurehead president. They hailed him as a bold leader who always had the best interests of the game in mind — from his selection of Watson as captain of 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup Team to bridging fractured relationships with the PGA Tour.
Watson, who faced withering criticism — most notably from player Phil Mickelson — for his leadership style in the aftermath of the U.S. Ryder Cup loss at Gleneagles, Scotland, was especially grateful for Bishop’s efforts to field a champion.
“Everything was for the betterment of the team,” said Watson, whose introductory phone call in South Dakota was a request from Bishop to serve as captain. “He went out of his way to do everything possible to set the table for the team.
“I couldn’t be more proud of what you did, Ted.”
Stricker, a 12-time PGA Tour winner and assistant captain on the 2014 Ryder Cup team, shared the sentiment.
“It’s been a pleasure to get to know Ted over the years, to work with him, to see his passion for the Ryder Cup while Tom was trying to lead the team to a victory last year,” Stricker said. “Everything he does is first class.
“Anything that he wanted to do, he would bounce off me and get my opinion from a player’s standpoint, so that’s how we became friends.”
Finchem, noting a rift that opened in 1968 between the PGA of America and the PGA Tour, immediately saw an opportunity to mend fences with Bishop’s election as president. Bishop, general manager and director of golf at The Legends, had made working more closely with the Tour a priority. The organizations united but ultimately failed stand against the USGA ban on anchoring was a prime example.
“It occurred to us that maybe this was an opportunity to change gears a little bit,” Finchem said. “There was more accomplished in terms of the two organizations working together toward common goals. He set the table and model for the way we ought to collaborate.
“We’re indebted to his leadership on that.”
After extolling Bishop’s achievements, conversation turned to the Ryder Cup. Asked by Miceli what he would do differently if he had the 2014 captaincy to do over again, Watson had a simple answer.
“Get better players,” he said, which drew roaring applause from the crowd. “If you look at the Ryder Cup results, our players didn’t perform as well as theirs (the Europeans’). The bottom line is, we had a chance to win on the last day.”
Although he acknowledged that a captain can influence an outcome, Stricker agreed that the ultimate responsibility lies with the players.
“You need guys playing well,” he said. “You can put the two best guys together, and if they’re not playing well, it doesn’t really matter. They’re not going to win. So it ultimately comes down to the players.”
On the topic of Woods, whose well-documented fall from No. 1 in the world to No. 262 continues to dominate much of the PGA Tour conversation, Stricker, Watson and Finchem offered similar perspectives. None enjoys watching him struggle; and each agreed his swing is the problem.
Finchem also said he doesn’t think Woods’ problems are hurting the Tour’s television viewership.
When Woods plays, people still tune in. When he doesn’t, it gives budding stars like Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka a chance to blossom out of his shadow.
“His problems currently are not a problem for the PGA Tour,” Finchem said. “His shelf life as an interesting player to watch play golf, in my view, is another 10 years if he plays just like he plays now. People like to watch Tiger Woods play golf. Meanwhile, by not playing well, he won’t even be in the tournament this weekend in Akron (Bridgestone Invitational), which he’s won a zillion times over the years.
“So that frees up television to give these other young players the coverage they need to build them into stars, and we’ve got a lot of them right now, more than we’ve ever had. So to me, we’re in a perfect situation. If Tiger comes to play, it’s a bonus.”
Stricker, a longtime friend and admirer, doesn’t delight in Woods’ collapse. Because Stricker, too, endured his own trying times in the early 2000s and can relate to the anguish.
“It’s sad to watch, in some regards. I think basically it’s his confidence level,” Stricker said. “We’ve all been there as players. I was there for a period of three years, and I can see some of the things in Tiger like I felt when I went through my slump. And what’s shocking is, when I watched and played with Tiger over the years, I was always thinking to myself, ‘Here’s a guy that’s never gong to go through one of those.’ And to see him actually go through this period of time shows you how complicated the game can be, especially at the professional level.
“He’s not as consistent. He doesn’t look like he’s comfortable in what he’s doing at times, and he’s changed his swing so many times, I think that’s part of the issue. You’ve got to have confidence. If you don’t have confidence, it’s a tough game to play.”
Watson, too, can relate, telling the crowd that he endured an eight-year slump on a Woods-like scale but finally broke through. Although he thinks Woods can, too, he’s not optimistic it will happen soon.
“From about 1985 to ‘93, I couldn’t break an egg. I struggled. I hated the game. I stopped playing the game for six weeks at a time,” Watson said. “Was it my confidence? No. It was my inability to play to the capability I thought I could play. It was my golf swing. You can’t have confidence unless you’re hitting the ball well. I didn’t have that consistency. You can’t have the confidence when you’re like that, when you’re out there making guesses, and Tiger’s in that stage right now. It’s the golf swing. His golf swing is not very good.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I could fix his golf swing right now. He needs to do a (Lee) Trevino or a (Jim) Furyk-type golf swing. He needs to go shut to open, shut to open. It’s a pretty simple fix.”
The two-day golf celebration at The Legends ended with Wednesday’s Mulligan Open, a fundraiser benefiting the Little Red Door Cancer Cancer Agency, the Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation, the PGA Tour Wives Association and the Indiana Golf Foundation.
Tuesday’s festivities, including a silent auction and “An Intimate Evening with Golf Legends,” also benefited the charities.