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How 10 minutes with Tom Watson changed my life


In my experience, few possess it.

Even fewer demonstrate it when conducting media interviews.

But this week, many showed glimpses of it and several showcased it as an art form.

That’s because the golfers were in town for the 144th Open Championship at St Andrews.

To me, grace is presenting yourself with:

  1. Decency
  2. Respect
  3. Poise
  4. Charm

It’s being at peace with yourself – and comfortable talking about it.

Tom Watson – five-time winner of the Open’s famous claret jug – oozes grace.

As he took his bow on the 700-year-old Swilcan Bridge on the 18th hole of the Old Course, many around the world would have shed a tear as I did.

Tom Watson bill mcgarlan pink elephant Swilcan Bridge st andrews old course.

My tears came from a personal experience of a man who made a profound impact on my career in the media and my interactions with others.

In 1977, he arrived at Prestwick Airport on a flight from the States to compete in the Open at Turnberry in Ayrshire, which he would go on to win by holing a last-gasp putt to defeat Jack Nicklaus.

At the Kilmarnock Standard, where I was a junior reporter, we got a tip off that the 1975 Open Champion would be arriving around 6am.

I was sent to ‘doorstep’ him (interview him without having arranged it).

How would he react?

Would he stop to talk?

Would he brush past to a waiting limo?

To my delight, he stopped and courteously answered my questions for ten minutes.

I was a sports fan – a 19-year-old golf addict – and this golfing god had just made my day, my week, my year.

Tom Watson bill mcfarlan pink elephant.

But the profound impact these ten minutes made on me had little to do with his golfing ability or fame.

It was his grace.

It was clearly more than great media training or natural presentation skills that had got him this far.

His ability to talk easily as equals and share his knowledge and insights in such a way that I felt good about him – and even better about myself.

That got me thinking about the way I had been brought up…to play down successreject praise and ‘be humble‘.

Tom Watson‘s take on life was much more inspiring than that.

He talked positively about his success, talked positively about his chances that week in the Open and talked positively to me as a reporter.

He showed it was OK to enjoy success, that praise could be graciously accepted and that being humble was more about showing gratitude than looking embarrassed about success.

I did only one more interview with him – this time a TV interview.

I was a BBC sports presenter fronting Breakfast News sport and he was the 1993 Ryder Cup captain.

Tom Watson bill mcgarlan pink elephant Paul Azinger media interview.

Sixteen years had passed since our only encounter – and Tom had taken his tally of Open wins to five.

I was in the London studio and he was at the Belfry near Birmingham, so the interview was “down-the-line” and we were unable to chat before or after.

This time, I needed to ask tougher questions about a rather ugly Ryder Cup match two years earlier, where some Americans had taken Gulf War jingoism into golf and almost ruined the occasion.

Tom Watson answered my questions with: grace.

He played down the jingoism, played up the great sporting contest. My admiration for him grew further.

Another sixteen years later, in 2009, with a hip replacement, Tom Watson played four rounds of the Open over Turnberry.

Tom Watson bill mcgarlan pink elephant playing golf.

To the astonishment of the watching world, he had a ten-foot putt to clinch a record sixth Open title and make him the oldest-ever winner of the trophy.

Sadly, he missed – and an employee at Turnberry later told me the atmosphere in the hotel that night resembled a wake.

So that’s one reason the golfing world shed a tear on Friday night as Tom bowed out of Open championship golf, 40 years after first winning the greatest golf competition on earth.

But I was more interested in what he had to say than what he shot last week.

And his TV interview with the BBC was a study for those who are interested in media handling and who wish to use the power of television as a force for good.

He was magnanimous about his great rival Jack Nicklaus and gave him his place as the greatest golfer of all time.

Tom Watson bill mcgarlan pink elephant jack nicklaus.

He spoke warmly about the Open, its venues and the people who are regarded as the most knowledgeable of golf fans –

the British.

He told us that his only regret was that it had all come to an end – and he was grateful for every minute of it in victory and in defeat.

And then he said something that reminded me why he had made such a deep impact on me.

He concluded by saying that it was much more important to him to be regarded as a good father and human being than a champion golfer.

He even found time to present the also-retiring Ivor Robson with a gift to mark his much heralded career.

Great TV interviews have the ability to inspire and to change lives.

But you have to do them willingly, answer every question put to you – and be true to yourself.

Zach Johnson thrilled us with his golf.

Tom Watson bill mcgarlan pink elephant Zach Johnson.

The chasing pack made it a hugely exciting (if greatly weather-disrupted) spectacle.

But to me, the most worthwhile airtime over five days of coverage from St Andrews was Tom Watson‘s honest and heart-warming examination of his Open career.

It cemented three things I had learned from my golfing hero:

1) If the best golfer in the world can give me ten minutes of his time, I can do the same for anyone wanting advice or guidance.

2) Work gives us great satisfaction but human relationships are the things we stay alive for.

3) There’s a better way to handle success than with embarrassment. We can handle it with grace.

Thanks Tom for the memories – and what you’ve taught me.

Bill McFarlan is managing director of media training and presentation skills firm Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can view his full profile here.

Photo credit: StartAgain / Foter / CC BY-ND; cliff1066™ / Foter / CC BYKeith Allison / Foter / CC BY-SA; Evan Wilson Photography / Foter / CC BY-ND


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