In considering the life and times of Tom Weiskopf, who died Saturday at age 79, the first thought, of course, is of the man as a golfer. His swing was pure poetry, and his game equal parts power and control. He won 28 times as a professional and was especially strong during the 1970s, taking 11 tournaments that decade, including the 1973 Open Championship. And doing so at a time when Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Gary Player and Lee Trevino also were at the top of their games.
To be sure, there were infamous eruptions and gut-wrenching near misses. And they endowed Weiskopf’s playing career with very Shakespearean qualities. Drama. Tragedy. Farce. But they did nothing to diminish the undeniable fact that he had serious game.
Weiskopf also turned out to be almost as good with a microphone in his hand as he was with a golf club, commentating quite ably on the Open Championship for ABC and ESPN or the Masters for CBS Sports. In addition, the native Ohioan enjoyed a brilliant third act as a golf course architect, designing 70-odd courses and earning great acclaim for many of them.
His was a rich and varied golf life, indeed.
“No one ever looked better standing over a shot,” said Jim Nantz, who as a youngster watched the sandy-blond, 6-foot-3 Weiskopf compete on the PGA Tour and later worked golf tournaments with him for CBS. “Tall and dapper with striking good looks, Tom had a real presence about him. He carried himself just as you expect a top tour professional would.”
Weiskopf turned pro in 1964, and four years later won his first PGA Tour title, the Andy Williams San Diego Open. Several of his most memorable triumphs came against his fellow Buckeye Jack Nicklaus. The 1975 Canadian Open, when Weiskopf beat the Golden Bear in a playoff. The 1995 Senior Open, too, when Weiskopf took his one and only USGA championship, by four shots over Nicklaus on the testy Blue Course at the Congressional Country Club.
But Weiskopf’s playing career was as much about his close calls, a number of which also involved Nicklaus. Two of Weiskopf’s four runner-up finishes at the Masters left him just back of Jack, for example, including the 1975 three-way showdown with Nicklaus and Johnny Miller, considered one of the greatest Augusta editions. There were five top-fives in the U.S. Open.
Weiskopf also contended in the 1975 PGA Championship, held at Firestone Country Club in his home state of Ohio, he ended up in third place, just three back of – you guessed it – that year’s victor, Jack Nicklaus.
Weiskopf had his share of meltdowns. Perhaps the most notorious happened on the 12th hole at Augusta National during the 1980 Masters, when he recorded an almost unimaginable 13. Another occurred at the 1996 U.S. Senior Open. Per tradition, the USGA paired Weiskopf as defending champion with the reigning U.S. Senior Amateur champ, Jim Stahl. During one of their rounds, Weiskopf took exception to Stahl’s use of a coin as his ball marker, claiming it was too shiny, and very publicly – and quite unnecessarily in the view of most observers – dressed down the genial gent from Cincinnati.
Weiskopf was not a club thrower. Nor was he prone to outbursts of profanity. But he raged inside when things did not go his way and occasionally let those emotions erupt. Members of the news media dubbed him the “Towering Inferno.”
Later in life, Weiskopf began examining what caused him to go off the rails so wildly and so often. He eventually came to believe part of it was due to having such high expectations for himself and his golf game. “Perfectionists are determined to master things, and you can never master golf,” he said in a 2001 interview with Golf Digest.
He also acknowledged that it was not easy playing in the competitive shadow of Nicklaus, who was roughly three years his senior, or being compared to him all the time while never quite measuring up. Both Ohio natives. Both played golf at Ohio State. Both were big hitters and great ball-strikers. To be sure, Weiskopf got the better of the Golden Bear on occasion. But far more often than not, Nicklaus came out on top.
Through the years, Weiskopf made indelible and far-less-controversial marks in other parts of golf, as a television commentator and also one of the finest course architects of the modern age.
Weiskopf also had issues with alcohol. “It was a serious problem for many years,” he confessed in that same Q&A, which took place some 18 months after he finally gave up booze in January 2000. “It ruined my career. Every big mistake I’ve made can be traced back to drinking.”
In talking about Weiskopf on TV, Nantz recalled a rather infamous moment during the 1986 Masters that ended with Nicklaus slipping on a green jacket for the sixth and final time.
“It’s my first Masters for CBS Sports, and Tom is in Butler Cabin with Brent Musberger,” Nantz said. “Jack is on the tee at 16 that Sunday and about to pull the trigger when he suddenly backs off from his tee shot and starts tossing blades of grass into the air. So, in something of a panic, I throw it back to Tom. I said, ‘Tom, you’ve known Jack Nicklaus most all of your life. What do you think is going through his head right now?’ And without hesitating, Tom replied, ‘If I had any idea of what was going on in Jack’s mind, I would have won this tournament three or four times myself.’ ”
A fan of Alister MacKenzie – who designed the two courses he played at Ohio State, the Scarlet and the Gray – Weiskopf found his way into the design business in the mid-1980s. He showed talent right away, collaborating on his first course at Troon Country Club in Scottsdale with Jay Morrish. Golf Digest named it its Best New Private Course of 1986.
Weiskopf derived great pleasure from the craft of course design – and great success. “It suited his artistic flair and keen attention to detail,” Nantz said. “It is also what prompted Tom to let go of his competitive career after winning the 1995 Senior U.S. Open. He was so fully engaged in course architecture by that time, and so vested in that business.”
Nantz also surmised that Weiskopf was better able to manage his perfectionist streak as a course designer than as a competitive golfer.
As a rule, Weiskopf did not like to move a lot of earth in his jobs and tried instead to make the best possible use of the ground that the client gave him. He also strove to make his courses as accessible for the recreational player as they were challenging for better golfers.
He crafted some real gems through the years, such as Double Eagle in Ohio, Loch Lomond in the Scottish Highlands, Forest Dunes in Michigan and the Monument and Pinnacle layouts at Troon North in Arizona. He is also credited with popularizing the drivable par-4 as a present-day design element and including at least one in each of his creations. The idea for doing that came from the first Open Championship he ever played, on the Old Course in St. Andrews in 1970. Weiskopf loved how strategic they were and the ways they forced golfers to make risk-reward decisions.
Loch Lomond was a favorite of Weiskopf, and he was particularly fond of its drivable par-4 14th. Ironically, that hole came very close one day to being the site of his demise.
He had traveled to the property during construction and early one morning made his way out to No. 14. “I tried to jump a stream but fell into a peat bog instead and was stuck there for a couple of hours,” Weiskopf told John Hopkins of Global Golf Post in a 2018 interview. “My wellies are still there today, and so are my jeans. I got out with my underwear and a T-shirt.
“I never thought I was going to die,” he added. “I always felt I could get out. It was quicksand, full of leaves and mushy stuff. I never hit bottom. I was suspended. It started out at my waist. The more I wriggled, the deeper I got. It got up to my armpits. Then, I calmed down a bit and eventually found this root, which was big enough for me to pull myself out.”
After walking back to the garden cottage where Weiskopf was staying with his first wife, Jeanne (with whom he raised two children: daughter Heidi and son Eric), he cleaned up and then climbed back into bed. He was so exhausted that he did not wake up until the next morning.
Scotland was also the location of another frightful but much less potentially lethal incident. At least from a physical standpoint.
It occurred during the 1972 Open Championship at Muirfield, when the Weiskopfs were staying at the decorous Greywalls Hotel that overlooks the ninth and 18th holes. One evening, Tom and Jeanne were conversing with an Englishwoman who asked who he thought was going to win the tournament. “Tony Jacklin,” he said. “I hope he beats Trevino’s ass.”
A sudden silence swept through the room, and the woman walked away without commenting. Weiskopf could only wonder what he had done wrong. “Then Jeanne said, ‘Not only have you embarrassed everyone in this room, you have also embarrassed your country. I guess you don’t have any idea of who you were so rudely speaking to?’”
Clearly, Weiskopf did not. “For all I know, she could have been the queen of England,” he said.
Close, Jeanne relied. It was the monarch’s sister, Princess Margaret.
Weiskopf competed in his first Ryder Cup at Muirfield the following year, compiling a 3-2-1 record and helping the Americans win, 19-13. The margin of victory was even higher for the Yanks in 1975 when he was part of the squad that Arnold Palmer led as captain at Laurel Valley in Pennsylvania. Weiskopf finished that competition a pristine 4-0.
But he passed on playing in the 1977 matches at Royal Lytham & St. Annes on England’s Lancashire coast. The golfer, you see, was also an avid big-game hunter. Two years before, he had made plans to travel to the Yukon that same week in an effort to complete a very rare grand slam of wild North American bighorn sheep. He already had bagged a Stone sheep as well as the Rocky Mountain and Desert bighorns. All that was left was the elusive Dall, and that was too tempting a proposition to pass up. Especially with the U.S. dominating the matches in those days and the Ryder Cup not having near the allure it currently does.
“Knowing what I know now, I shouldn’t have done it,” he told Hopkins, even though Weiskopf managed to complete his slam during that trek. “I suffered for it instead of playing in the Ryder Cup. I suffered from the press. They did a number on me.”
That is how it often was with Weiskopf. Some good and some bad. He had regrets, to be sure. Guilt, too, for mistakes he made on and off the course. But he enjoyed a playing and design career that certainly seems worthy of a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame. And he was no doubt pleased with how things turned out in later years. With his sobriety and the clarity that condition brought. With a rehabilitated relationship with his first wife and a marital mulligan with his second, Laurie, that he hit down the middle of the fairway.
It was a wonderful life, after all.