Edwards still part of Watson's game

Golf: The memory of his friend/caddie and the fight against ALS continue to drive the PGA Tour veteran.

Golf

October 01, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Tom Watson's last trip to Baltimore for a golf tournament provided a bittersweet memory for the Hall of Famer, a five-hole playoff loss to Don Pooley in the 2002 U.S. Senior Open at Caves Valley.

Watson has been back only once, but his ties to the city have become a lot deeper in the past two years.

It had to do with the life - and ultimately the death - of his longtime caddie and close friend, Bruce Edwards, whose condition was diagnosed a few months after the Open as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Edwards died in April of the incurable disease at age 49.

Watson's decision to play in this year's Constellation Energy Classic, a Champions Tour event that will begin today at Hayfields Country Club in Hunt Valley, is due partly to one of the tournament's charities - the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at the Johns Hopkins Medical School.

"What Bob [Packard] did before he died with ALS was create a funding mechanism for research, with the stipulation that if you wanted the grants or the funds, you had to share your research," Watson said last week. `To me, that made definite sense. That's the reason I got involved with it."

According to Dr. Jeffrey Rothstein, the director of the Packard Center, Watson has raised more than $500,000 for the funding of a new gene therapy trial program that Hopkins officials hope will begin next year. Watson also donated the $1 million annuity he received as the Champions Tour's Charles Schwab Cup winner last year to ALS research.

In all, Rothstein estimates Watson's efforts have raised nearly $3 million to help find a cure for a disease that eventually robs people of their ability to walk, talk, swallow and breathe. Those who suffer from the disease usually succumb in a two- to five-year period.

"Tom's support has been phenomenal and extremely helpful," said Rothstein. "Anytime someone talks about a disease that is relatively rare, it helps raise awareness. He touches on another community. He affects a population that has not been engaged before."

That community was not only hit hard by the news of Edwards' illness and death, but also by PGA Tour player Jeff Julian's similar struggle. Julian was diagnosed in 2001 and died in July at age 42. Both Edwards and Julian remained on tour long after their disease was made public.

Watson has spent much of the past two years raising awareness about ALS.

"I've had lots of people that didn't know anything about it come to me and say essentially they learned what they knew from they saw Tom do and say on television," said Rothstein. "It all helps because they might come forward after hearing that and donate money."

Watson's visit to Baltimore this week comes at a time when the 55-year-old golfer has struggled with his game, in large part because of a nerve problem that caused weakness in his right shoulder back in June. He has also been hampered because of a degenerative condition in his hip.

After this week's tournament, Watson will undergo arthroscopic hip surgery and will later get the shoulder repaired.

"I hope that in six months, when I come back, I am stronger than I am right now and will be able to play with the freedom of pain, and more motion and more strength in the right arm," said Watson, who, after leading the Champions Tour in earnings last year with more than $1.8 million, has fallen to 41st this year.

Though he is approaching an age when many Champions Tour players seem to watch their skills decline, Watson is hopeful his game will come around once his injuries heal.

"Physically, the ability to hit good golf shots is paramount to whether you win or lose," said Watson. "My body right now isn't allowing me to do that, and that's caused me to get off [track] to a greater degree than it has in my career."

As a result of the poor swings to go along with another putting slump that hampered him toward the end of his career on the regular tour, Watson's confidence has sagged.

"You lose your confidence because you're playing cruddy," said Watson. "You gain your confidence by hitting good shots. That's common sense. What I've tried to do is remember those thoughts - if I can remember them at my age - that I had during that 2002 Senior Open."

His second-place finish to Pooley at Caves Valley was one of five Watson had that year. After coming from three strokes behind on the final day and making six birdies in eight holes to forge a playoff with Pooley, Watson lost when he missed a 10-foot birdie putt on the 77th hole.

"I have mostly good memories there," said Watson, who also finished second in the 2003 Senior Open. "I obviously didn't win it, but I had an opportunity to win. I played very well that week. I wish I could regain that form."

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