Tom Watson leverages memories of his youth to grow golf

The major champion's interest in the game was stoked by rounds and ice cream sandwiches with his father. Now his Watson Links program creates similar experiences by connecting youth players with mentors

With eight major championships and five PGA Tour money titles as part of an illustrious Hall of Fame career, imagine the golf memories that swirl around in the head of Thomas Sturgus Watson on a daily basis.

He turns 75 in September, but instead of riding off into the proverbial golfing sunset Watson remains a key figure in the game that made him rich, famous and humble.

Few golf personalities in the last half century are as nice and giving as Watson, so it should be no surprise that he has reverted to his childhood golfing memories to create Watson Links, a new program that helps get youth players — golf’s next generation so to speak — on the golf course with a mentor.

Tim Watson launched his Watson Links initiative in 2023 in an effort to bring more youth players into golf through actual rounds played and mentorship.

"I go back to when my father took me on the golf course when I just started out playing golf," Watson says. "He would come home from the office and say ‘Son, you want to go play three holes?’ And I said, ‘Would I?’ I couldn't wait. The tease was the golf, but the real reward was the ice cream sandwich that he would always get me after I played three holes with him."

The Watson Links program provides opportunities for kids between 10 and 18 years old to learn — and love — golf in a real course setting, and Watson hopes become lifelong players. The program matches groups of players with older mentors to play nine holes at a local golf course at no cost to either of them. Watson, who helps fund the program with his Watson Youth Golf Foundation charity, said these rounds help create a passion for the game by taking kids beyond lessons on driving ranges to regular play for the fun of it through social rounds with their mentors.

"These mentors love the game of golf and are able, for example, to tell the kids 'Maybe this tee is not the right tee for you' or show them how to play a shot from 125 yards into a green and actually be able to play nine holes of golf,” Watson says.

Watson started the pilot program last year in his home of Kansas City, and now cities such as Omaha, Wichita and Sacramento are part of the program heading into 2024. There is interest from such larger cities as New York and Philadelphia growing by the day, according to Watson.

A modest 150 kids participated in the program in 2023, logging 640 rounds on 10 different courses. Those numbers are expected to rapidly increase as kids and mentors are now able to sign up for rounds via the program’s new app.

“The mentors play for free," he says. "The kids play for free. That's the enticement of the program."

Watson said a program like The First Tee organization is a good introduction of golf to the nation’s youth, teaching them life and social skills, but in a more "practice" type of golf setting compared to his program, which actually provides a real golf course lesson with a mentor.

"I think we have synergies with them, but kids in those programs need a place to play," says Watson of The First Tee. "I know some First Tee programs have their own existing golf courses that they can utilize, but a place like Kansas City doesn't have that."

Watson says the number of youth playing golf began to diminish in the 1970s when the golf cart became prevalent at most courses.

"That’s when the caddy programs just started to diminish and wither away," Watson says. "So, where were all the new kids going to come into golf from all walks of life? Where were they going to have the opportunity to be around golf?"

Watson saw this void first hand as one of the game’s greats during that time period and he vowed to do something about it. So, he started a program called Clubs for Kids, where under the direction of Watson as many as 70 pros would come to Kansas City, cut down adult clubs and execute free lessons for the kids.

"Well I thought it was great, but looking back on it now it was a worthless failure because these kids got clubs, they got a lesson and they had no place to play," Watson says.

Watson, who used to ride his bike 3 miles to the golf course as a youth, may have to provide a brief history lesson of his accomplishments to some of the new kids he is embracing because of an age gap. However, most mentors view him as one of golf’s all-time greats and can’t wait to be a part of his new youth program.

“If I can use my name to help promote this then great,” says Watson, who is considered one of the greatest links and short-game players of all time with five British Open championships. "But I think the program has a groundswell of support. When I talk to people about this they universally say, 'What a great program. I wish we could do it.' We have 10 or 15 inquiries from cities that are looking at the program right now. We’re really hoping to export this program around the country."