The Watsons Celebrate 75 Years at Walloon Lake
By Jack Berry
Northern Michigan isn't just for Michiganders. The lakes, streams, hills, dunes and pine and hardwood forests long have been a magnet for writers like Ernest Hemingway, Civil War historian Bruce Catton, Washington Post columnist David Broder and novelist Jim Harrison, television stars like Tim Allen and golfers from Walter Hagen to Tom Watson.
Hagen was an established superstar when he bought a home on a lake near Traverse City (he'd hit new balls into the lake) but Watson began his summer treks to Walloon Lake when he wasn't much taller than a driver.
"I love that country up there," Kansas City native Watson said. "I love Walloon Lake. It's one of the most beautiful lakes there is. I enjoy the area, I love the woods, the ferns, the quietness when you walk in the woods in the summer. The air is so clean; it's pristine.
"And all the lakes are different _ Walloon, Charlevoix, Round. I started going up north when I was five years old. My dad (Ray) had roots there. His father had a place on Walloon Lake."
Watson never knew his grandfather, though. His grandfather was killed in an airplane crash in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1930 when Watson's father was 11 years old.
"I first went up there in 1923," Ray Watson said, "and kept going-up for 35-40 years."
"When I first started going up there we'd stay for two weeks," Tom Watson said. "Then it was three weeks, then it was a month. I went up there every summer through high school and college.
"I love that country. It has a wonderful feel and the old Hemingway influence. Charlevoix with the petunias lining the streets. It's such a pleasant place to be. It makes you feel wonderful. Eating shrimp at the Argonne, eating planked whitefish at Juilleret's, the Damsite Inn for fried chicken. And fudge in Charlevoix and Petoskey.
"Walloon Lake Country Club was a nine hole course when I first went up there and it was a perfect course for me. I was a kid and I went around and around it _ there wasn't a whole lot of play in those days.
"One summer, when I was 12 or 13, Ed Kelbel, the wonderful pro at Walloon, took some kids up to play a tournament at Cheboygan. I shot 87 the first day. The next day I shot 71 and they called me a sandbagger," Watson said, laughing.
"I played (Petoskey) Bayview and Wequetonsing where Hord Hardin (late longtime chairman of the Masters Tournament) was a member. I'd have three hot dogs there. I loved their hot dogs and mustard and I was a growing boy.
"My favorite course is Belvedere and I had a chance to play it again last (1998) summer with my dad. It's a delightful course. You hear stories about Walter Hagen going in and shooting 64.
"The 16th is one of the best holes in golf. The green is benched out of the side of the hill and it drops off to the right.
"It's a short hole (346 yards from the back) but it's a wonderful hole. And the 11th (uphill 391 yards from the back) is one of the best _ 11 and 16 are great holes.
"My dad scored his only double eagle on the 15th, a drive and 3-iron," Watson said of the sharp dogleg right par 5.
Belvedere hosted the Michigan Amateur Championship 38 times but, to the dismay of those who played it so often, the sponsoring Golf Association of Michigan has bypassed the classic Charlevoix course, a superb match play test (Dan Pohl won two Amateurs there), since 1988.
Ray Watson paid Belvedere a supreme compliment: "My favorite golf course anyplace is Belvedere. There aren't any tricks. You get what you hit. I like it better than Cypress Point.
"One year I followed Dan Pohl around the Hawaiian Open_Tom wasn't playing it that year. I tried to figure out how Dan got so much power with that three-quarter swing.
"We talked about Belvedere and I said I'd heard he hit the fifth green with a drive and 6-iron. It's a 535-yard dogleg left with a little creek that cuts across the fairway. He said he just hit it over the dogleg.
"I don't think I've ever seen Tommy any closer than a 4-wood for his second shot," Ray Watson said.
"I think I shot a 66 at Belvedere one time," Tom Watson said. "I might have been even par when I played it last summer. I think my best score at Walloon was a 66, a pair of 33s."
Watson played most of his golf at Walloon and played his father in the club championship two years in a row.
"I was maybe 14 years old the first time, "Watson said. "I had him two down with three holes to play and he evened the match on 18. Then he made a 12-footer to save par and we halved the first extra hole.
"He missed the green on the second hole and I was on, about 35 feet from the cup. He chipped close for a gimme and I putted to two feet and he wouldn't give it to me and I missed ("That was the last time I beat him," Watson's father said).
"The next year I beat him, 3 and 2," Tom said. "But missing that putt the year before was a good lesson, one of those things in life that you have to learn. My dad taught me a lot of lessons and one of them was hole everything, whether it's six inches, inside the leather or whatever," Watson said.
"Byron Nelson told me about a time he played Frank Stranahan at Inverness (Nelson was the pro and Stranahan, probably the best amateur of his day, was a member of the Toledo club). Byron said at the start 'All putts holed, give nothing.'"
Watson found a lot of changes when he returned to northern Michigan last summer with new courses and housing springing up everywhere.
"All the new courses surprised me from the economic standpoint because of the shortness of the season. We had lunch at Bay Harbor. I didn't play the course but it looked elegant. I did practice at Boyne Highlands where Jim Flick has his summer schools."
Watson said that after he joined the PGA Tour he went up north for vacation, not to play golf.
"My dad would want to play and I'd say 'Naw, I'd rather fish every day.' Then when I'd get ready to go back to the Tour, I'd play Belvedere and Walloon."
Surprisingly, Watson hasn't played northern Michigan's most highly-rated course, Crystal Downs at Frankfort. He did hear about the Downs' tough setup for the 1991 United States Senior Amateur at the Downs, however, when the greens were so firm and fast that players putted balls off the green.
"You have to give the course a little leeway in case the weather turns (as it did that year, from pleasant to cold and windy). Wind and dryness can make it unfair and I'd rather err on the easy side and be able to play a decent round of golf rather than have it too tough," Watson said.
Up in Michigan, to borrow a Hemingway phrase, the weather can turn fast, from going fishing weather, to playing golf weather, to eating hot dogs weather to devouring fudge weather. Young Tom Watson found it perfect for all of the above. And still does.
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