He was born in Kansas City, Missouri. A lifelong golfer (first gaining local renown while on his high school team at The Pembroke-Country Day School in Kansas City), Watson began his golf career in 1971, the same year he graduated from Stanford University, where he was a member of Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity, with a degree in psychology.
He has won eight major championships on the regular tour—two Masters (1977 and 1981), one U.S. Open (1982), and five British Opens (1975, 1977, 1980, 1982, 1983).
His 1977 British Open victory, at Turnberry in Scotland, was especially memorable. After two rounds, he and Jack Nicklaus were one shot out of the lead and paired for the third round. Both shot 65, ending the third round three shots clear of the field. Watson and Nicklaus were again paired for the final round. On the last day, the two were tied after 16 holes. Nicklaus missed a makeable birdie putt on 17, losing his share of the lead to Watson, who birdied 17. On the 18th, Nicklaus drove into the rough, while Watson drove into the fairway. Watson's approach landed three feet from the flag, while Nicklaus, after a drive into deep rough, managed to get his approach 30 feet away. Nicklaus sank his birdie putt to finish with a 66, but Watson followed suit with his own birdie, finishing with a second straight 65 and his second Open.
Watson's U.S. Open win, in 1982 at Pebble Beach, was equally memorable. Nicklaus, playing two groups ahead of Watson in the final round, charged into a share of the lead with five consecutive birdies. When Watson reached the par-3 17th hole the two were still tied, but with Nicklaus safely in the clubhouse at 4 under par 284. Watson hit his tee shot on 17 into the rough just off the green. He faced an extremely difficult chip shot downhill on a very fast green that sloped toward the Pacific Ocean. While being interviewed on national television and fully aware of Watson's terrible predicament, Nicklaus appeared confident he was on his way to an unprecedented fifth U.S. Open championship. Watson's chip shot, amazingly, hit the flagstick and landed in the cup, giving him a near-miraculous birdie and setting the stage for yet another win over Nicklaus. Watson went on to birdie the 18th as well, for a final margin of two shots.
A memorable moment in Watson's career came at the 2003 U.S. Open, when, at age 54, he took the opening-round lead by shooting a 65 with his longtime caddy Bruce Edwards carrying his clubs. The latter would succumb to Lou Gehrig's disease on April 8, 2004 at the age of 49.
Watson's stellar play on the PGA Tour faded in the late 1980s when he began to have problems with putting although his tee to green game seemed to actually improve, but he had a revival in the late 1990s and the last of his 39 wins on the PGA Tour came at the 1998 MasterCard Colonial when he was forty eight years old. However, he has demonstrated remarkable consistency by making at least one PGA Tour cut per year since 1971, a streak of 37 years. During his prime, Watson may have been the most complete golfer ever to play the game.
Watson joined the Champions Tour in 1999, the same year he earned an honorary membership of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews in Scotland. Ironically, St. Andrews is one of the few Open venues where Watson did not claim victory. He has nine wins on the Champions Tour, including four senior majors. Watson was one of two players to play with Jack Nicklaus in the final two rounds of golf in Nicklaus' career, which ended at the 2005 The Open Championship on the Old Course at St Andrews. The young Englishman Luke Donald was the third member of the group.
Having resided for many years in Mission Hills, Kansas, Watson currently resides in Stillwell, Kansas with his wife, two children, and three stepchildren. He also designed the National Golf Club of Kansas City golf course.
Watson was named PGA Player of the Year 6 times, 1977-1980, 1982 and 1984, and trails only Tiger Woods who was named 7 times. He won the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average three straight years: 1977, 1978, and 1979. He played on four Ryder Cup teams: 1977, 1981, 1983, and 1989 and captained the 1993 team.
In 1987, he was voted the Bob Jones Award, the highest honor given by the United States Golf Association in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf. Watson was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1988.