Tom Watson’s mentorship initiative aims to produce ‘lifetime’ golfers

Tom Watson walks the course and instructs kids from the First Tee of Kansas City during the third round of the AdventHealth Championship at Blue Hills Country Club

Tom Watson with a group of First Tee of Kansas City participants last month.

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Long before he won the first of his eight major titles, Tom Watson didn’t know how to grip a club. It’s the same for every golfer. You’ve got to start somewhere.  

Watson was lucky. He picked up the game early.

As a prominent supporter of junior golf, he has spent much of his career helping others do the same.

“It’s something we always talk about — it’s a lifetime sport,” Watson says. “And that’s something we can impress upon the kids — or, at least, the parents. What happens when they are no longer playing basketball, baseball, soccer, volleyball? What are they going to do when they’re 30, 40, 50? Wouldn’t it be good to give them the skills and passion for the game now?”

Turning that message into meaningful action has been part of Watson’s M.O. since the early 1970s, when his own career was on the rise but another aspect of the game was in decline: caddie programs — and important pathway into golf for many — were increasingly being replaced by carts.

Watson worried about the implications.

“I always felt that caddies were the players of the future,” he says. “As the caddie yards got depleted, I thought, ‘My god, we’ve got to do more to get kids involved with the game.”

Over the years, Watson, who is now 73, has thrown his weight behind a range of junior golf initiatives, including the First Tee and Youth on Course. The former teaches golf fundamentals, along with core values; the latter lowers the cost of entry to the game. Watson has believed in both since their inception.

But he also sensed that more could be done. Easy access and affordability were not enough. Once kids were in the game, you had to encourage them to keep at it.

“And so I started thinking about my history and said, ‘How did I start?” Watson says. “Well, my dad gave me the fundamental skills, and then he took me to the golf course, and I played with him. The ultimate mentor, right? So, why don’t we start a program where kids who have developed some skills can go to a course and play with someone like my dad — a mentor with a passion for the game?”

Enter Watson Links, a unique initiative, established by its namesake in his hometown of Kansas City.

True to Watson’s intent, the program emulates his own childhood experience by giving junior golfers, ages 10 to 18, free access to select golf courses, accompanied by an adult mentor who shows them the ropes as they play, sharing insights on every aspect of the game, from chipping and putting to etiquette and strategy. Every mentor undergoes a thorough background check before being paired with a junior, and tee times are covered by course donations and support from Watson’s charitable foundation.

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After a test run in 2022, Watson Links is in the throes of its first full season, which will stretch for 22 weeks until mid-October. The response has been robust, with 65 mentors and 90 kids signing up within days of the program’s launch. The goal, Watson says, is to enroll upward of 200 junior golfers by the end of the year.

Even as he grows the program locally, Watson hopes to replicate it nationally. He has already had discussions with industry leaders about launching similar pilot programs in other cities.

Though Watson Links currently operates under the umbrella of the First Tee Greater Kansas City, Watson says the program isn’t so much part of the First Tee as it is a complement to it. 

“I would hope the First Tee would see that as an adjunct to their program,” Watson says. “They teach these kids skills, but then lose them because they don’t have a place to play. The way I look at it, this is going to be a significant bridge. It’s going to create an influx of kids who learn the game and develop a passion for it, and even if they give up the game for a time, they’ll always have those skills, so they can always come back to it. That’s the goal. To create lifetime golfers.”

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Josh Sens Editor

A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.

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