American historian Connor T. Lewis' social media post highlights the incredible misadventure that happened to champion Tom Watson. Press articles report the non-compliance of part of his equipment during four major titles won in 1977 and 1982.
These facts unearthed from history force us to ask several questions. The first is brutal: did Tom Watson cheat? The answer is no. Legally, the reason is simple: at the time of the events, both in 1977 for his irons and in 1982 for his ball, Ram brand equipment was not considered illegal.
They only became so after the fact. Morally, the answer must be qualified because if they had been duly tested before the tests, they would have been prohibited. Not seen, not caught somehow. Another question then comes to mind: did Tom Watson know?
Tom Watson, history
Let's immediately get rid of the (too small) 1982 ball.
Declared legal at the start of the season, it was not until August, after the US Open and the British, that the manufacturing error was found by the USGA. The difference in diameter was anyway so small that it would have been impossible to see it putter in hand.
By way of explanation, the Ram Golf company evoked a manufacturing problem where the incriminated balls would have been deprived of the last pictorial layer. Others would have stayed too long in the mould… Let's focus instead on the affair of the grooves that were too wide, declared illegal just before the 1977 US PGA.
The authorities had no doubts about the American's good faith, especially since the latter himself asked the inspectors to judge the conformity or not of his series. However, a small doubt remains and it is due to a man at the origin of the controversy: a certain George Burns.
Pro on the PGA Tour since 1975, this native of Brooklyn is having his best season. He has just finished 5th in the Open won by Tom Watson. He is one of the hopefuls under contract with the Ram brand. A week before the events, equipped with brand new irons, he took part in the Greater Hartford Open (future Travelers Championship).
After two rounds in 65 and 72, he finds that his irons respond surprisingly. His playing partner Jerry Heard also wonders, while passing his hand over the face of the irons, if the grooves are not abnormally wide. After confirmation from the officials, Burns decides to leave the tournament by disqualifying himself.
The news reaches the ears of Tom Watson who decides in turn to have his clubs checked. At the end of the test, the American, mortified, declared: “I have been using these irons for over a year, they have been used at the Masters and at the Open…”.
How could a champion of his caliber never notice the manufacturing error for more than a year while an obscure pro (sorry Mr. Burns) took barely two days to have his clubs examined? Still, Tom Watson, like others who failed to beat him, might have had an advantage considering that wider grooves allow for easier spin.
It's all about "largesse": it is not without reason that there are regulations in this area. The first victim concerned by these controversies is none other than Jack Nicklaus. Of the four Majors in question, he finished 2nd on three occasions….
But "the Blond Bear" never complained, considering that his rival never failed. And then, he knows too well that the history of golf is punctuated with similar examples, especially from the time when the pros fashioned their own paraphernalia while today the equipment undergoes constantly changing standards.
At that time, the industrialization of golf equipment was still experiencing some hiccups and compliance checks by the authorities were far too random and imprecise. The times have changed…
The fact remains that the main culprit of all this controversy remains undoubtedly Ram Golf.
We imagine that the company has taken steps to improve its quality control department! The company can in any case thank Tom Watson for going through with his contract…