Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Randy Watkins remembers winning the national junior golf championship as a 15-year-old and how that launched him to Ole Miss, an SEC Championship, the PGA Tour and a Hall of Fame career in golf.
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Tyler: Hello, and welcome to the Crooked Letter Sports podcast with your hosts, Mississippi Today sports columnist Rick Cleveland and me, Scorebook Live Mississippi’s Tyler Cleveland. And this is a show about Mississippi sports and the folks who play it. Today, we’re going to be talking about some golf, something, Rick, I know you and I both take way too seriously.
Rick: Way too seriously. Spend too much money on. And sometimes we don’t get the return on our investment that we wanted.
Tyler: Yeah, I certainly don’t get the return on the investment I’d like out of the golf balls I buy. They seem to find the woods way too often and sometimes find the water after I’ve missed the putt.
Rick: Well, you know, I tried to get you to play when you were little and lived on a golf course, and I tried to get you to play and you never would play.
Tyler: You know, it’s a true story. And I told somebody the story this morning. You moved us. I remember, I felt like we were moving on up in the world when you bought the house in Castle Woods.
And I got the, you got a golf cart and memberships for the whole family. And tried to get me into it. And I had only had eyes for baseball.
Rick: Yeah. And you couldn’t hit a curve.
Tyler: Couldn’t hit a curve ball. Wasn’t much better with a golf ball. I mean, it was sitting still. I think it was one of those things where I was like, you know, 13, 14, 15, and got out there and wasn’t immediately good at it.
So I didn’t really develop my love for the game until after I’d finished with college and back in Jackson and I couldn’t play baseball anymore, but I’ll tell you what is, I mean, for me, it’s just a way of life now, and that’s sad to say considering what happens when I get out there.
Rick: Well, I’ll tell you what. The great thing about golf is that you can play it for life, and you can enjoy for life. And it’s something that you and I can do together and, you know, fathers and sons, and hopefully, maybe sometime there’ll be a grandson and we can all play together. Today, we’re going to talk about somebody who could really play.
Tyler: Yeah. Flat out play it. I mean, our guest today, Randy Watkins, is going to be no stranger for any listeners in the Jackson Metro area that play golf. You’re going to know Randy and what a treasure trove of stories he’s got. And I’m sure he’s going to drop some on us today, but you know, when you’re talking golf in Mississippi, I don’t think you can have that conversation without Randy.
Rick: It’s absolutely right. He’s going to be one of the newest inductees into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. And without further ado, let’s get into our conversation with Randy Watkins.
Our guest today is no stranger to anybody who follows golf or sports in Mississippi, Randy Watkins, soon to be inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, better late than never.
As much as he’s achieved in golf, he’s got Tyler Cleveland and Rick Cleveland on his conscience because he’s our teacher.
Randy: For better or worse, right?
Rick: But Randy, so good to have you here today.
Randy: Thank you, Rick and Tyler. Appreciate you having me. I’m sure awfully humbled to be elected in the Sports Hall of Fame. It’s quite an honor.
Rick: You’re very deserving. And. It’d be a very short list of people who have done more for their sport than you’ve done for golf in Mississippi.
Randy: Well, I appreciate it. I sure love it. I’m sure lucky to be in it.
Rick: I wish you could get me to putt .
Tyler: I was about to say, I don’t think you want to put the “Rick and Tyler’s coach” thing on your résumé
Randy: Hadn’t added that to it just yet, but there are days now you’ve done it.
I mean, both of y’all.
Rick: Yeah. There’s days. Like leap year and stuff like that. Yeah. So Randy, you know, a pretty big thing on your résumé is United States Junior Champion.
Randy: Yes. Yes.
Rick: I mean, that’s up there. Tell us where it was. What happened?
Randy: It was 1977 and I was 15 years old at the time. And my birthday’s in September.
And they had the local qualifier at Sonny Guy Municipal, which… it was a three states qualifier. And so I entered like I was doing all the junior tournaments around Jackson and around the surrounding areas. And then it was, I don’t remember how many spots, but I only think it was one person advanced from Sonny Guy.
And I played well that day. I do not remember what I shot, but I got through that one. And that got me into the regional qualifier, which was in Monroe, Louisiana. And it was a better field and there were people from everywhere there and This was a 36- hole qualifier and they were taking two out of the out of 60.
And I shot even par at the municipal course in Monroe. They had an old pro there named Johnny Myers, who was great friends with Robbie Webb and very well-known in the golf circles. I beat his son, Scott Myers, who was a better player than I was at the time. And I didn’t know that I could beat him.
I never had beat him until that day. So it was a little… sorta cool for me and for Mr. Myers to congratulate me for getting through it. That got me to go to the finals at Disney World on the Palm Course at Disney World and with very little expectations, but I actually went to… I saw Max Tullos at the country club in Jackson after I qualified.
And I talked to Mr. Tullos about practice. And I hadn’t played a ton of golf in Florida at that point. And he said, “If I was you, to prepare for it, I’d hit a thousand drivers a day. You need to drive the ball to Fairway because it’s either grass or water in Florida.” Well, he was one of my heroes. And so I went to practicing, and I mean, I was driving the golf ball like a champ, and I actually went down there and loved the golf course.
First time I saw it, we took a family vacation. My whole family went, my mom and my dad. My brothers went. I shot 71 the first day and got the lead, which was sort of shocking because it’s a hard golf course, but I thought somebody’d shoot lower than that. And I shot 73 the second day, kept the lead, played poorly on the third day and shot 76, but it was a tough day and reatined the lead.
So I got the lead again, going into Sunday, and I shot 71 Sunday and won it by a couple and really was in disbelief. You sort of get into a little fog of just competing and there weren’t scoreboards everywhere, but it was a national championship. So there was a lot going on. My favorite story about it was other than the fun at Disney World, which we did every night. We had great distractions.
The date, the final date was August the 16th, 1977, which is not a date that pops in everybody’s head that it means anything, but it happened to be the day that Elvis Presley died. And so I got done playing and there’s a whole lot of people around and there’s a lot of media and I had to go sign my scorecard.
And so I worked through my parents and everybody. I went and signed my scorecard and came back out and my dad was crying. And my dad was not a crier and I’m still today. Not really sure if he was crying because I won or Elvis died because he had just found out that Elvis died. And I’m pretty sure it’s because of Elvis because I think he loved Elvis more, but that really opened the flood gates for me.
I had played well the summer before I lost the Future Masters in Dothan, Alabama. Lost it in a playoff as a 14 year old, which gave me some belief that I could compete in the South, but then this really pushed me over the edge
Rick: Fifteen, you were competing against…
Randy: It was a 15 to 17 year old age group, so I was on the younger.
Tyler: So, you were going to this competition. You’re 15 years old. You’re playing against these 17 year olds. I mean, what was that feeling like? I mean, you said you had the previous tournament make you feel like you could compete, but then you get there, and you see the field.
I mean, what’s that like going into that?
Randy: It was scary really. Of course at 15, I was as big as a lot of 17 year olds. So I wasn’t a little 15 year old. I was pretty good size even then. But when you looked at the field of who was there, I knew who they were because they were guys that were winning all their state stuff and regional stuff.
So, I knew who they were. And some of them were collegiate signees. They’d already committed to go to college somewhere because they were seniors in high school, and I was a 10th grader. So, it was pretty intimidating. And matter of fact, Bob Walcott and I have been friends since then. He finished second, and he was a good size for his age too.
But, Bob was a year older, actually. It was scary going in because these were kids from all over the country. Every state. Pretty much, they try to make sure every state is represented in that tournament. And it was the second year of it. It was born in 1976. So this was the second year for it to be this big of a deal.
So it was pretty scary to see them, but I don’t remember thinking I couldn’t outdo them cause I could out hit a lot of them. It wasn’t like I was giving up 30 yards off the tee, or I had less hair on my chest than the rest of them. I was just as big as they were, but the college guys were pretty scary.
Rick: 1977. And that’s the first time I ever heard of Randy Watkins.
Randy: Right. I think we met right after that.
Rick: Right, and been covering you ever since. But did that when lead to a lot of college attention right away?
Randy: Opened the door really quickly. The letters started coming, and recruiting was different then than it is today.
It’s not quite as… we don’t have cell phones. You don’t have emails, you don’t have texting, all that. So everything you got was by letter. And on occasion, if the coach had seen you play, they would call. And the University of Georgia coach, his name was Dick Copas, who was on Vince Dooley’s staff as a football coach, but did the golf team too, was an outstanding recruiter.
I mean, when I lost the Future Masters in a playoff, he watched that. I was 14. And when I showed up for the PGA Junior in Disney World, he was there. So he was paying attention. So the doors opened up big time at that point. And then I got invited to other big tournaments. Doug Sanders did a big event in Houston called the International Junior Masters.
And then there was a big event in Buffalo, New York. Now, my parents just sent me. They didn’t go. I boarded a plane and flew to Houston as a 15 or 16 year old and played in an event. And then I flew to Buffalo and played in the big international invitational in Buffalo. And so all those events, now, the eyeballs are there.
‘Cause that’s where the coaches go. They go to the elite tournaments, and they’re hunting players. And so they started reaching out early on from the southeast. And then I played well in Buffalo. And I finished fifth or sixth, and it was a big deal because it was a little more international flair, and Eddie Merrins wrote.
So now I’ve reached all the way to the west coast. Course, he’s from Mississippi and a Hall of Famer himself. Really sort of opened my eyes when it got past that. I was getting them from the South and even the SEC, but once it reached out to Oklahoma State, Texas, and then all the way to UCLA, I thought, well, maybe I got a shot at it.
Tyler: College golf then, a little different than it is today.
Randy: Oh, gosh. Yes.
Tyler: What was it like when you first, you know, you got to Ole Miss. What was your impression of college golf then and how different is it from what it is now?
Randy: My favorite story about my college was: I was going to Georgia and actually signed.
And I’m not sure if you [Rick] wrote it, but it was written in the paper, and it was either you or Orley. It came out in the Clarion Ledger that I had signed with Georgia an SEC letter of intent. And I had weeded down my schools. I visited Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas. Those were my five official visits.
Rick: Pretty good list.
Randy: Pretty good list. And I went to Texas the weekend they had myself Mark Brooks and Willie Wood, the same weekend, and they were trying to sign all three of us. Well, Mark was a Texan. Willie Wood was the best junior in the country at the time. They were offered fulls and me, a half, which by itself would have been okay, but it was also 40,000 students or 50,000, whatever Texas is. A humongous place, it was really an intimidating place.
And there was a guy on the team that was a friend of mine that I beat at Disney World named Jim Spagnola, whose uncle was a great tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles. He was on the team at Texas. Anyway, the story hits, and the Ole Miss people go bananas. The next thing I know, the phones are ringing from Warner offered, Bob Travis and Bones Casa all said, “We don’t want you to leave Mississippi.”
And so, long story short was Warner, Steve Sloan, Bob Travis and Bones Casa come to my home to meet with me and my family, my parents. At the time, Ole Miss did not have a golf coach. They did not have a driving range. And the furthest they traveled for a tournament was Birmingham.
They didn’t play in anything. They played in Murray State’s tournament, no offense, but they didn’t go anywhere. So, Warner says, “What do we got to do?” And I’m 17 years old. I haven’t even turned 18 yet. I’m telling the A.D. at Ole Miss, who I did know, and who I knew, Steve… Coach Sloan was a good Players [is he referring to the Players Championship?]. You know, I said, “Well, you don’t have a coach.”
And Warner said, “I’m going to hire a coach. Matter of fact, if I don’t find somebody to [unintelligible], I’ll get Steve to do it.” Which was a pretty good hook for me because I love Steve Sloan, and who didn’t? And he loved golf. And I said, “We have no place to practice. I’ve not even been up there, but one time in my life.”
And so, they made a lot of promises and a lot of commitment to the golf program. And then Bob Travis took me up there the next day for an unofficial visit, and we were going to meet Warner and Steve and tour the place and talk about it. And at midnight that night, Mr. Travis knocks on my hotel room door, says, “Get up. We got to go home. The Pearl River is busted, flooding my house. We got to go home.”
So we drive home at midnight, and we move the furniture out of his house and put sandbags around us, all through, till sun up. That was my recruiting at Ole Miss. And I signed because I believed them and their commitment, Warner, in particular.
And then my father — of the many great things a father can share with a son, which your dad did for you and your dad has done for you, I’m sure — my father said… and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to get out of the Georgia deal, really. And my dad said, “It’s this simple. If you think you want to live in Mississippi the rest of your life, you need to stay home and go to school at Ole Miss. If you leave, and you go to Georgia, and you have a good career at Georgia, and you come back home, and you need to raise money to go on the tour,” which, we weren’t wealthy, and I was going to need sponsors’ support, “they’re going to send your butt right back to Athens and say, ‘Go get the money there. You left us when you could’ve stayed.’ If you stay here and you have a good career at Ole Miss, it’ll take you five minutes to raise the money.”
That’s exactly what happened. I had a good career at Ole Miss, and I didn’t ask for money until I made it through the [PGA] Tour school and I had my car. I funded with a loan from my parents, and it was a loan. It wasn’t a gift. And my dad charges interest. He was a mortgage lender, so he charges interest and collects it. I borrowed the money to go to the Tour school, which I did. The first stage was in Virginia, and I made it through that. And then the second stage was at Deerfield, and I won that one, which got me into the finals at Sawgrass.
And only then when I made it through, did I come home and ask for support, help. And it took a day.
Rick: About that interest, Tyler…
Randy: It’s a great lesson in life. So, playing golf at Ole Miss laid the groundwork for a lot of things in my life today that, and I’ll say this, and I’ve said it a thousand times, at no time in my life has Ole Miss not been helpful to me.
Not once, professionally or personally. In business, I’ve had financial partners. They were Ole Miss people. Every opportunity I’ve had in my life was founded and grounded in an Ole Miss connection. And it’s been unbelievable, and it will be that way the rest of my life. It’s affected my family greatly.
Rick: Randy, I’m going to stop you right there, and we will continue this in part two.
Tyler: All right. That’s it for us today. Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of the Crooked Letter Sports podcast, and thanks to everyone who makes it possible. This podcast is produced by Blue Sky Podcasting in Jackson. Feel free to subscribe on your favorite podcasting app. Follow Rick and I on social media — @TylerCleveland, @rick_cleveland on Twitter.
And you can always stay tuned to the latest in Mississippi sports by reading Rick’s work in Mississippi Today at mississippitoday.org or Tyler’s with Scorebook Live Mississippi. That’s scorebooklive.com/mississippi. Thanks for listening guys. Have a good one.