Saturday, July 18, 2009

What Tom Watson Teaches Us About Business and Practicing Law

by John L. Watkins

July 18, 2009. Today, I and the rest of the world that pays any attention to golf watched the amazing spectacle of Tom Watson, age 59 and only a couple of months short of his sixtieth birthday, and less than a year after hip replacement surgery, take the lead of the British Open, one of golf’s four major tournaments. No, not the Senior British Open, the British Open, or, for the rest of the world, the Open: The same tournament on the same Turnberry links that sent Tiger Woods, the best golfer on the planet for the last decade, packing after two rounds. The same tournament that Tom Watson has previously won five times, most recently in 1983.

As I am writing this, I have no idea if Tom Watson will pull off a win. Regardless of what happens, what Watson has achieved through three rounds is nothing less than astonishing, and can remind us all of a few important lessons about life, and maybe even about practicing law. Here are a few random, although hopefully appropriate, thoughts.

“This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?” Watson is reported to have asked this question to Jack Nicklaus on the back nine in the heat of their famous “Duel in the Sun” on these same Turnberry links 32 years ago, a legendary battle in which Watson prevailed. Nicklaus supposedly replied, “You bet it is.” Although Watson surely wants to win this year, perhaps more than anyone, the chance to be back in the battle after so many years, doing the one thing he does best, and under the most improbable of circumstances, is itself reward enough.

Although not nearly as true in golf as other sports, most athletes have very limited time in which they can play their game or sport at its highest levels. Fortunately, this is not true for most people in business, and it is certainly not true in practicing law. Watson has reminded us to stay in the game, to enjoy what we do, and to relish the chances – few as they may be – to do something really special in our chosen business or profession.

“Come on, old man.” These words were uttered to Watson during the second round by Sergio Garcia, the brash young Spanish star. At the time, Watson had made a number of bogeys, and the round seemed to be getting away from him. Sergio reminded Watson that he had shot a spectacular round the day before, and, in essence, told Tom to get it in gear. Watson responded with a number of birdies coming in, and, at the end of the day, he shot an even par 70 that took the lead. After the round, Watson thanked Garcia for the pep talk.

Golf, as life, business and law, is, when at its best, an intergenerational game. As much as Watson appreciated Garcia’s words of encouragement, Garcia was no doubt inspired by Watson’s performance. This is as it should be. The young should learn from the experienced, but the experienced can be inspired by and learn from those who are younger.

Tiger Woods, as an example, has certainly inspired many younger golfers. But he also inspired many more experienced golfers to get in the gym and to raise their games. And his example of taking his hat off and shaking hands on the last hole, regardless of his own performance, is an example to all generations.

Watson’s performance is also a reminder that these guys could really play, and, under some circumstances, can still play. There is an unfortunate tendency in athletics for fans to appreciate only the accomplishments their generation, and to downplay the accomplishments of prior generations. Many people who never saw Watson and Nicklaus play (not to mention Palmer, Player, Casper, Trevino, Ballesteros, Faldo, and many others) seem to assume that Tiger and Phil Mickelson and others are somehow inherently better than their predecessors.

The fact that Watson can challenge the young guys at 59 (and after a hip replacement) shows how wrong this assumption is, just as Nicklaus demonstrated with his top 10 finish at the Masters in 1998 at age 58 (before his own hip replacement). If these guys can challenge the current champions now, many years after their prime, it would seem to be a reasonable assumption that, hey, they really were pretty good and still are. And, for the record, if Tiger could go back in time, he would be pretty darn good, too.

The same assumptions made in athletics may also be made in business and law. Law, perhaps of all professions, is intergenerational. I started practicing in 1982 with the old Hansell, Post firm in Atlanta (it is now Jones, Day’s Atlanta office). The lessons that I learned from the Hansell, Post partners – Rhett Tanner, Hugh Dorsey, Jule Felton, David Bailey, Hugh Wright, Rick Kirby, and John Parker, among others – stay with me today. I have tried to pass my own lessons on to a generation of younger lawyers. As I have seen the lawyers I have mentored achieve success, I hope I have repaid the debt.

Experience Means Something. Watching Watson hit smart shot after smart shot in difficult and differing conditions – taking his medicine when necessary – shows the advantage of over 30 years of experience in playing links golf. Even in athletics – where youth must be served – experience still counts for something. This is even more so in business and law.

I hope Tom wins, but, even if he doesn’t, we can all learn something from his most recent accomplishment.

I also think I’ll hit some balls tomorrow after the tournament.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent commentary John.

    Tom Watson is showing the golfing world he still has game. Go Tom Go!