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A Friendship Long in the Making

Dermot Gilleece on Paul McGinley's friendship and admiration of Tom Watson

Posted Aug 06, 2013 by Chris Stewart

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After more than 30 years, Paul McGinley is eventually fulfilling a boyhood dream this week by playing in a major championship with his long-time idol.  He and Tom Watson are joined by Darren Clarke in the first two rounds of the 95th PGA at Oak Hill.  And interestingly, it is happening at the same event where they first talked to each other, 12 years ago.   

Even while dreaming the wild dreams of an aspiring professional, McGinley thought it unlikely he would ever cross paths with Watson, let alone be opposing him one day as a Ryder Cup captain.  But they are set to become intense rivals when Europe defend the trophy at Gleneagles in the autumn of next year.  

“When Watson was regularly winning Open Championships, I was getting into golf as a kid in Dublin,” said McGinley. “And I idolised him.  I admired the integrity of the man, the briskness of his play and his courage down the stretch.  He always seemed to have an air of authority about him.”

Then came idyllic, college days, studying international marketing in San Diego where he met fellow student, Allison Shapcott, an English amateur international who would later become his wife.   There were outings to Torrey Pines.  Like in February 1989, when the Shearson Lehman Hutton Open came to town, and watching Watson towards the back-end of the field was a comfortable experience over the weekend.  “I didn’t have the courage to dare talk to him,” he admitted.   

In fact it would be a further 12 years before McGinley met Watson for the first time.  This was in the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club where his caddie was J P Fitzgerald, now bagman to Rory McIlroy.  “On our first day there, we arrived at the course at 6.30am for a practice round, jet-lagged,” he recalled.  “After I’d hit some warm-up shots, we then headed in a thick, morning mist to the first tee.  Hardly believing my eyes, who should I see on the other side of a hedge? Only Watson and his caddie, Bruce Edwards.

“My heart skipped a beat. I just stood there, not knowing what to do. Hesitating for about 10 seconds, I eventually plucked up the courage to identify myself as Paul McGinley from Ireland and asked if I could join them.  After what seemed an eternity, he looked me straight in the face, extended his hand and said: ‘Paul: Irishmen are always welcome in my company.’”  One imagines that comment may have been influenced, somewhat, by the fact that Watson happened to have been captain of Ballybunion GC the previous year.

McGinley continued: “So, off we went.  And at the first par-three, we both hit the green with six irons.  It’s wet and gooey.  Watson’s telling me a story when we reach my pitch mark. I bend down and do a quick repair, one-two-three, and walk off.  Continuing with the story, Watson suddenly stopped, walked back a few paces and, talking all the while, re-repaired my pitchmark like a surgeon before tapping it down with his putter.  He said nothing, but the point was clear.  If you’re going to repair a pitchmark, do it properly.

“It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten.  Ever since, I repair pitchmarks like a surgeon, just like Watson showed me. During that round, he talked eloquently about many things, including his ideas on the game, and about Jack Nicklaus.  I can’t remember the details.  Since then, we’ve played other practice rounds together and had a very cordial relationship.”

In fact they dined together during Open Championship week at Muirfield last month, though McGinley failed to qualify to compete in the event.  Ironically, the last time he competed in a Major championship was in the Open at Turnberry in 2009 when countless hearts were broken by Watson’s last-ditch failure to capture the title at the venerable age of 59.  This week, the Dubliner is at Oak Hill on a special invitation from the PGA of America.

Typically thorough, he has made certain there are no loose ends in his relationship with his American counterpart.  This includes an incident during the 1993 matches at The Belfry, where Watson, as US skipper, refused a request by Sam Torrance for autographs from the American players.  “I’ve spoken to Sam about it and it seems that Tom later apologised to him,” he said. “Apparently it was a misunderstanding which arose from Watson’s anxiety to protect his players.”

McGinley concluded:  “As a great fan of the Ryder Cup, there’s very little about the matches I’m not aware of.  And this week is yet another, welcome opportunity to build on a growing relationship with Tom Watson which I expect to become even closer, over the next 15 months.”

You might describe it as a friendship, that’s been all of 30 years in the making.

- Dermot Gilleece

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