This is what Tom Watson said about his wife, Hilary, shortly after she died just before midnight on Thanksgiving eve at the end of a two-years-plus battle with pancreatic cancer: “The void she leaves,” Watson wrote in a text, “will be filled by memories which will always remain as they leave indelible marks on our souls which we will never forget. She said she was dying to live, not living to die throughout her entire ordeal with her cancer. She’s my hero.”
Hilary Watson was 63 and had endured endless rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery since she and Tom first received her diagnosis on Halloween two years ago. With all the progress that’s been made in treating cancer, pancreatic remains a killer. Almost 75 percent of those who get it die within a year of diagnosis, many in less than six months. In the case of my father, it was six weeks.
Hilary had a chance to survive because she was in excellent health and shape when she first began to experience the stomach pains in October 2017 that led to a CT scan, which revealed the cancer. Much like her husband always played golf, she attacked the disease, refusing to give in to the incredible pain she experienced while going through chemo and then radiation.
On May 2, 2018, she underwent more than six hours of surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and, soon after, was declared cancer-free. She had won—with an asterisk.
“We all know cancer can come back,” she said when I spoke to her for a story I was writing for Golf Digest that was to chronicle how the Watsons came through their ordeal. The story was supposed to be a celebration. In it, I quoted David Feherty, one of the Watsons’ closest friends: “When Tom first told me, I almost felt sorry for that cancer because I knew Hilary was going to beat it. If it had been an ordinary person, I’d have felt a lot gloomier.”
The story never ran. I was at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock when I got a call from Tom: The cancer was back. He and Hilary were on their way to Houston to the MD Anderson Cancer Care Center to start a new round of treatments.
They rented an apartment near the clinic, and Hilary began the relentless chemo again. There were moments when she appeared on her way to recovery, and then there were setbacks. She continued to compete in horse-cutting competitions whenever she felt healthy enough, finishing third in a major competition as recently as September.
“I’ll never give it up,” she said shortly after her surgery in 2018. “It’s what keeps me going. I love it.”
Hilary's passion was horse-cutting, something she did well into her cancer treatment.
Hilary Holton grew up in Rhodesia—which is now Zimbabwe. She was always an athlete and qualified, in 1976, for the Rhodesian Olympic team in the long jump, high jump and hurdles but didn’t get to compete in the Montreal Olympics when the country was banned by the IOC because of apartheid.
She married a golfer—Denis Watson—in 1986, and they moved to the United States while Denis was competing on the PGA Tour. He won three times on tour and four times on Senior Tour, including the 2007 Senior PGA Championship.
By then, Hilary and Denis had divorced, as had Tom Watson and his first wife, Linda. Hilary and Tom were married in 1999.
Tom Watson is as smart, honest and blunt as any athlete I’ve ever known. Hilary was all those things—and more.
I first met her in 2003, when I was researching my book on Bruce Edwards, Tom’s longtime caddie and closest friend. She sat with Tom and me at breakfast one morning while I did my first interview for the book with Tom. After two hours, it was time for Tom to go to the golf course—he was playing in the U.S. Senior Open at Inverness. After I turned off my tape recorder, Hilary looked at me and said, “I have a question: How much will Bruce get from this book?”
I explained the contract to her and said, “I’d be happy to get you a copy of it if you want.”
She shook her head. “No need. If Bruce trusts you, I trust you. But I want to be sure Marsha [Bruce’s wife] is taken care of. I know that’s what he’s worried about most.”
I knew it, too. Bruce was dying of ALS, and one of the reasons he had approached me with the book idea was in the hope that it would make enough money to provide for Marsha and her children when he was gone. Hilary wanted to be sure. Bruce died less than a year later.
“She adored Bruce,” Tom told me later. “Even though they were almost the same age, he was like a little brother to her.”
Both Watsons did their homework on her disease and knew the grim numbers by heart. They were undeterred. “I decided if I was going to go down,” Hilary said, “I was going go down fighting.”
Feherty first met Hilary when he went to South Africa to play shortly after turning pro. “She was luminous,” he said Thursday morning. “She had such an upbeat approach to life every day. She was one of those people who found good in everyone. When I first met her, she was gorgeous in every possible way. She never stopped being gorgeous in every possible way.”
Tom cut his tour schedule way back in 2018 after he and Hilary began to deal with the cancer. In fact, their close friend Neil Oxman—who caddied for Tom often after Bruce’s death in 2004—liked to tease Tom about the fact that Hilary made more money ($114,000) in horse-cutting competitions that year than Tom did ($63,000) playing golf.
It was Hilary who convinced Tom to take up horse-cutting, and he has improved greatly in the last few years. Still, he was nowhere close to Hilary.
“Hilary is about a 1- or a 2-handicap as a horse-cutter,” Tom said. “I might be a 16.”
Hilary wasn’t as generous. “I’m closer to a 5,” she said with a laugh. “He’s more like a 20.”
Among those who reached out to the Watsons after Hilary’s illness became public were Phil and Amy Mickelson, who had gone through their own scare when Amy had to fight off breast cancer. The angry words that had been exchanged by the two golfers in the aftermath of the 2014 Ryder Cup were forgotten. Amy Mickelson was in almost constant touch with Hilary, and Phil talked to Tom at length about dealing with the fear and helplessness he was feeling.
“It was very kind of Phil,” Tom said. “He and Amy were both great, almost from the beginning.”
Hilary greets after Tom played the final round at the Masters in 2016. Photo Harry How/Getty Images
There was still hope that all the treatment might pay off until about five weeks ago, when Hilary suddenly couldn’t keep food down. Her doctors weren’t certain what the cause was: it might have been a hidden tumour they couldn’t see, or it could have been damage done to her stomach through all the treatments.
When I last saw Tom, on Oct. 14—at our annual ALS fundraiser, The Bruce Edwards Celebrity Classic—it was pretty clear that the situation had become grave. Hilary always came to The Bruce. This time, she was too sick to travel.
Last Saturday, Tom flew Hilary home to their farm in Stillwell, Kan., and put her into hospice care.
“Tom told me on Monday night that as soon as they put her to bed, her favourite dog, Sam, jumped into bed with her,” Oxman said on Thursday. “Hilary loved her dogs. Tom said the dogs weren’t ready to let her go.”
Shortly after midnight on Thanksgiving morning, Tom called Neil. “The dogs have let Hilary go,” he said.
She had fought the cancer, never complaining about the constant pain or the emotional roller coaster she, Tom and their friends were riding. As she had promised, she went down fighting.
In the hours after her death, her husband said it best: She leaves a massive void in his life.
And in the lives of all who knew her.