NORTH MYRTLE BEACH — With the 47th PGA Professional National Championship being played in Myrtle Beach from Sunday through Wednesday, we would be remiss if we didn’t tell the tale of North Myrtle Beach resident Roger Watson.
You can’t tell the history of what was long known as the PGA National Club Pro Championship without telling Watson’s story. The two are intertwined.
He’s an integral part of the tournament’s lore, and likewise, the tournament has significantly influenced his life journey.
“That tournament really changed my life,” said Watson, now 70. “Winning this tournament can be a life-changing experience for any club pro. I’ve seen it. . . . It just makes a hell of a difference.”
Watson won consecutive club pro championships in 1974 and ’75, defeating legend Sam Snead in a playoff at Pinehurst No. 2 in ’74 and David Jimenez in a playoff at Callaway Gardens Resort in Georgia in ’75.
They were the seventh and eighth national club pro championships ever played, and Watson was the first true club pro to capture the title, shocking many in the golf world, including many of his competitors who had considerable PGA Tour experience.
After winning the 1973 club pro, Rives McBee said he couldn’t see a bona fide club professional ever winning the tournament.
“If you look at the history of the club pro championship, all the winners before Roger had been PGA Tour members,” McBee said Friday from his home in Irving, Texas. “I had come off the tour after 4 ½ years to be a club professional. Seeing what club pros had to go through, which I already knew from being an assistant, with the responsibilities they have there’s not much time to practice and work on their games. I really felt it would be tough for somebody that was a true club professional to win the tournament.”
Watson took the statement as a challenge, and worked hard on his game in the year that followed. “That inspired me to win it, absolutely,” Watson said.
Watson was the head pro at MacGregor Downs Country Club in Cary, N.C., and his only previous notable win had been the 1969 North Carolina Open.
“I didn’t want to have a tour card,” Watson said. “I wanted to be a club pro.” The PGA Tour then wasn’t nearly as lucrative as it is now.
Eligibility guidelines for the club pro are now more stringent, but at the time a golfer was eligible as long as he had a club affiliation and played no more than 10 tour events in addition to the four pro majors in a year.
Though they had been tour members, Jimenez represented Wintergreen Resort in Virginia and Snead represented Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.
Snead was 62 in 1974, but was still a better tournament player than just about any club pro and was still active on the PGA Tour. He’s the oldest winner in PGA Tour history, having won the Greater Greensboro Open just before his 53rd birthday.
That’s who Watson knew he was going to be up against on the eve of the final round when his wife, Sandy, informed him she had purchased new furniture for their home on her way to the tournament. “I told him he had to win, that I’d gone to High Point to buy furniture for our home in Cary,” she said.
Watson birdied the 13th hole for one of his three final-round birdies, and despite being two shots off the lead on the 14th tee, he told Sandy, “I feel like I’m going to win this tournament,” he said.
On the final hole of regulation, Watson, then 31, improbably holed a 90-foot rolling birdie putt that hung on the lip of the cup before falling. “I was just trying to finish and got lucky,” Watson said. Playing in the following group, Snead hit an approach on the final hole to 15 feet but missed the putt and they were tied at 284 after 72 holes.
Watson won a coin toss to hit first on the par-4 No. 1 playoff hole and placed a drive down the left-center of the fairway. Snead’s drive found right rough and left him with a much longer second shot into the green. His approach bounced off a greenside mound and into another fairway.
Watson hit the green with his second shot, and after Snead chipped onto the green with his fourth shot, Watson putted to within a foot of the hole to set up a tap-in par for the title, and he recalls Snead saying, ‘That’s good, pick it up.’”
Of course, had Watson picked up the ball, he would have lost the playoff because opponents can’t concede a hole in stroke play as they can in match play.
“I wasn’t going to [pick up], but what was funny was I could see three or four PGA officials come up that mound like ‘No, no, no,’” Watson said.
Some, including Sandy, believe Snead was trying to trick Watson into breaching the rules. Watson isn’t among them. “Everybody else said that, but I think Sam didn’t know the rules, to be honest with you,” Watson said. “He was aggravated more than anything else. I would’ve said the same thing if I didn’t know the rule.”
Watson knew the rule well, dating back to a tournament he lost when he was 10 because he picked his ball up. “Nobody could stop me from holing out,” Watson said.
Watson was not overwhelmed by his win, which earned him $16,000 to more than pay for the furniture. “As a kid you’re always practicing saying ‘This is for the U.S. Open,’” Watson said. “Honestly, when I won the tournament it felt like something I’d dreamed or done before. I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have.”
The appreciation would come, but not until after a second victory.
This time, the extra motivation was provided by a golf equipment salesman, who upon meeting Sandy at Callaway Gardens told her, “‘You better enjoy the rest of this week since you’re the defending champion’s wife,’” Watson said. “She told me that and that inspired me more than anything else.”
Watson recalls being paired in the first round in ’75 with five-time PGA Tour winner and acclaimed instructor Bob Toski, 15-time PGA Tour winner Mike Souchak and long-hitter George Bayer, and breaking 70 despite not putting well. At dinner that night, Watson overheard someone ask Toski who he thought was going to win. “He didn’t know I saw him, but he pointed to me and told the guy that I’d win the tournament,” Watson said. “That gave me confidence.”
Watson thought he had his second title won after 72 holes. Jimenez, who represented his native Puerto Rico in five World Cups, had about a 2-foot putt to tie him on the final hole that Watson knew broke about 2 inches. ”It was a really tricky putt,” Watson said. “I said to myself, ‘He’s not going to make this.’ I put my clubs up and was ready to go to the awards presentation. But he caught the left lip and made it, and we went out to the first tee.”
Watson rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole with Jimenez waiting to attempt a 10-footer for par. “His comment to me while shaking my hand was, ‘I’m glad you made a birdie because I didn’t want to tell my folks at home I got beat by a guy who made a par,’” Watson said.
The second win was worth $17,000, and the Watsons used the winnings from the wins to purchase a vacation condo on the Grand Strand. They eventually moved to the area in 2000 and joined the Surf Golf and Beach Club.
The playing career
Watson, a native of High Point, N.C., who was an NAIA All-American golfer at High Point University, married Sandy after his sophomore year and claimed a coveted assistant pro position at the Country Club of North Carolina after graduation.
Within two years he helped build and was the first pro at Sapona Ridge Country Club in Lexington, N.C., and a year later was the head pro at MacGregor Downs. His quick rise as a club pro curbed any ambition he may have had to become a touring pro.
“At age 25, I’m fully vested as a head pro and I’ve got a child,” Watson said. “I made more money than 90 percent of the guys playing on the tour as a club pro.”
But it didn’t stop him from juggling with his club pro duties with playing.
He played in four professional major championships – the PGA Championship in 1974-75 and the U.S. Open in 1975-76 – and close to 30 total PGA Tour events, often quite successfully.
“When I played in tour events I was competitive,” Watson said. “Making the cut wasn’t something that when I did it, I was elated. I expected to make the cut and play well. I’d just gotten to the point I was very competitive wherever I wanted to play.”
He also won the Carolinas PGA Section Championship in 1975 and ’76, but that was the last significant victory he would earn, as his playing career was derailed by a back injury.
Just before he was about to play in the 1976 U.S. Open at Atlanta Athletic Club, Watson was demonstrating how to separate connected golf carts to workers at MacGregor Downs.
“As soon as I picked it up the first time – and I had done it a thousand times – I felt my back on my right side get down into the cheek of my butt,” Watson said. “I thought, ‘This is sciatic nerve issues. This isn’t going to work.’”
At the time, he had been told by the owner of MacGregor Downs that he wanted him to play and travel more to represent the club, and Watson felt he was improving and just about on top of his game.
He was paired with Lee Trevino and Ray Floyd in the opening round of the ’76 U.S. Open, “and I knew I was going to do well, you know,” Watson said. “But my back killed me.”
At the time of his injury he had five exemptions into PGA Tour events. “I knew if I’d stayed there [on the PGA Tour] I could’ve done well with it,” he said.
Watson seldom played competitively from 1976-90. He had back surgery in 1985 that didn’t improve matters and a major back fusion surgery in 1988. He decided to restart his playing career in the early 90s and reached the final stage of qualifying for the 1995 Champions Tour – then known as Senior Tour.
But he became ill before the Q-School finals, and health issues have persisted since. Watson had kidney cancer that claimed one of his kidneys, and his remaining kidney is failing. He undergoes dialysis three times a week as he waits for a kidney transplant, and has been told he’s in the top group awaiting a kidney at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. “We don’t know how big that group is,” Watson said.
Watson is also a noted instructor who was a junior teacher for Scott Hoch, who won 11 PGA Tour events to earn more than $18.5 million in his tour career, and Vance Heafner, who made 149 cuts on the PGA Tour.
In part for his club pro victories and playing and teaching careers, Watson has been inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame, Carolinas PGA Hall of Fame, Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame and North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
Yet the virtual end of his playing career led to the beginning of a successful second career as a businessman that is also part of his legacy.
Watson believes winning the two national club pro titles resulted in opportunities that he otherwise would have never had.
He has built, developed, owned, leased, managed or renovated more than 60 courses, mostly in North Carolina.
“That tournament really changed my life because it allowed me to get investors to start businesses, and people I probably would not have been able to get just being a local golf pro or whatever,” he said. “Name recognition made a lot of difference. We raised quite a few million dollars with this investment banker who became my partner. He and I made a lot of friends, people who invested in our company that did well. And it all stems from this tournament.”
Unable to play competitively, Watson started the Eaglemere Group in 1982 to develop golf courses, and it built five that were eventually merged to create Carolinas Golf Group in 1987, with a former investment banker as Watson’s partner in the venture.
Carolinas Golf Group developed seven more courses and managed many more, and Watson said the company was sold in 1998 to Cobblestone Golf for $60 million.
Locally, he became an investor in Indigo Creek Golf Club in Garden City and managed Carolina National Golf Club in Bolivia, N.C. in the 2000s.
Watson reinstituted Carolinas Golf Group about 10 years ago when some of his former partners had clubs that were in debt and asked for his assistance. “I didn’t have anything to do for two years, got bored, and I said, ‘I’ll come back and help you,’” Watson said.
Carolinas Golf Group now manages five clubs in the Carolinas and Savannah, Ga., including High Point Country Club and Lonnie Poole Golf Club at N.C. State. Watson also does some consulting work. “I’m very active,” Watson said.
Watson’s courses have become a refuge of sorts for unemployed professionals, as Watson has created positions for several to make sure they receive paychecks.
“He has done so much good for so many people in his career, finding them help and work,” said McBee, who has remained friends with Watson since his motivating prediction in ’73. “He’s not just out there for himself, he’s out there for other people.
“I hate to see him going through the health problems. I don’t have any control over people waiting on transplants. I wish I did, I’d put him right at the top.”
Roger and Sandy celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on June 13, and Sandy has been alongside him for just about all of his golf experiences – either walking alongside holes or walking inside the ropes as a caddie, a role she filled on many occasions, though not always to professional standards.
She fell into a bunker while attempting to rake it during a senior mini-tour event, and during Champions Tour Q-School in the late 1990s Watson needed a club in the rain and found Sandy standing under his umbrella and wearing his rain suit. “I didn’t want to get my hair wet,” Sandy explained.
The Watsons have a daughter and son and four grandchildren. Their son, Chip, 46, is the general manager and golf director at Lonnie Poole and recently resigned as an assistant golf coach at N.C. State. Their daughter, Molly, 41, runs recreational activities for a school district in Pennsylvania.
A full life enriched by a couple club pro victories.