There is still, in the tanned, creased, smiling face of 60-year-old Thomas Sturges Watson, a strong reminder of the freckled, tousle-haired young Kansan who struck his first shot in the Open Championship 35 years ago today, and hinted at a remarkable affinity with the links courses of the British isles by winning the thing at his first attempt. The affinity was confirmed when he won the Open again at Turnberry two years later, following one of the most enthralling tussles golf has ever seen, the so-called Duel in the Sun with Jack Nicklaus.
A year ago, however, back at Turnberry, who among us guessed that Tom Watson, eight times a major champion but not since 1983, was about to turn back the clock with his game as well as his familiar gap-toothed smile? Sport is perennially haunted by the "what if?" question, but rarely has it shimmered as it did over the Ailsa course that remarkably eventful Sunday last summer. Had Watson managed to par the 72nd hole of the 138th Open, he would have lifted the Claret Jug for the sixth time, 26 years after his fifth. He would have become golf's oldest major winner by a street. And the consensus among even the old-timers in the Turnberry press tent, the guys who were at the Rumble in the Jungle and indeed the Duel in the Sun, was that it would have been the greatest story of their careers.
But it wasn't. And in sport, the word "nearly", for all its poignancy, ultimately counts for nothing. Nobody knows this better than Watson, whose experiences on but more pertinently off the golf course – which include a painful divorce, and a well-publicised triumph over growing alcohol dependency – have given him the aura of a wise and stoical old sage. Yet he felt anything but stoicism in the hours after his final-hole bogey five and the ensuing, rather traumatic play-off with Stewart Cink.
"Brian," he says (like all well-brought-up Midwesterners, he has a pleasing habit of repeatedly using the name of the person he is talking to), "after the tournament was over it pretty much tore my guts out. I'd had it within my grasp and I let it go. When that [eight-iron, second] shot was in the air at 18, I had visions of '77 in my mind. I hit it exactly the way I wanted to. But golf can be the most beautiful and cruellest game, all in the same shot... It was beautiful when it was in the air, but when it trickled over the green..."
Nevertheless, he still found himself left with an eminently makeable putt to win the Open. "I did, and I hit a miserable putt, a terrible putt. I felt confident over it, and I tried to make a good stroke, but I blocked it out with my left wrist."
And so came the play-off, and the agonising public spectacle of the rainbow dissolving on a man who moments earlier had had one hand on the crock of gold. How long, I ask, did it take him to get over it? "It honestly took less than 24 hours. We [he and his second wife Hilary] ate at a local place with friends who'd driven all the way up from Cornwall, and when I walked in I got a standing ovation, which was nice, but I was feeling pretty low, awfully low. I got one hour's sleep that night, and then I flew to London to play in the Senior Open at Sunningdale. At first, I decided that I would pass on a practice round. But then I told myself, 'that's not the way to do it. Play a practice round and get back to it.' Bruce Edwards [Watson's former caddie, who died in 2004, aged 49, of Lou Gehrig's disease] used to say 'let bygones be bygones'. And Bruce was right. To be trite, life goes on. And golf goes on. Getting prepared to play in the next tournament was all the therapy I needed."
All the same, he must make a more assured stab at that missed putt, in his mind, all the time? "Nope. I only relive it when I talk to people like you, Brian." A chuckle. "In the following weeks I was inundated with well wishes, not least from the troops I met in Iraq when I went over there. That soothed the hurt to a great degree."
Let us, then, get back to before the hurt needed soothing, to the moment when he really started backing himself, at the grand old age of 59, to win his sixth Open and thus draw level with Harry Vardon as the most prolific winner of the venerable championship. Was it after he posted his fantastic first-round 65? His second-round 70?
"No, it was on the Wednesday evening, before it began, that I really thought I could win. In a practice round on the Monday, I'd hit the ball great, but my putting was awful. On the Tuesday, I made an adjustment to my putting stroke, trying to tie my arm swing with my shoulders a bit more, and on the Wednesday I played a wonderful practice round, putting well. That night there was the most beautiful sunset over Ailsa Craig, and I said to myself, 'I know this golf course, I'm playing well, there's no reason why I can't win the golf tournament.'"
When the final day dawned, Watson was leading the field by a stroke. From Florida, Jack Nicklaus's wife Barbara texted to wish him luck, in fact texts and emails rained in from all over the world. "The incoming emails literally shut down my Outlook Express," he recalls. "It just kind of froze up. And sitting in the locker room prior to that Sunday round, my caddie Neil Oxman said to me, 'you know Tom, this is a life-affirming experience.' Which it was. It was one of those experiences in life that you work hard for, the opportunity to do something special."
Scarcely had the four-hole play-off got under way, however, than it became clear to everyone watching, and doubtless Watson himself, that the opportunity had slipped by. For weeks afterwards, Cink was portrayed as, literally, a spoilsport. He became The Man Who Shot Bambi. But Watson, unsurprisingly, has no truck with any of that. "Stewart is a wonderful man, a great family man. He did everything right. He birdied the last hole, he didn't miss a shot in the play-off. I failed to make par from the middle of the 18th fairway and I played a terrible play-off. That's all, folks."
Despite that heart-rending denouement, Turnberry is not so much where Watson failed to win his sixth Open, as where he so spectacularly won his second. Of the Old Course at St Andrews, which next week hosts the 139th Open, he has no such special memories. Indeed, it was his poor second shot to the 17th green in 1984 that arguably marked the beginning of the end of his golden years. A few minutes later, Seve Ballesteros lit up the auld grey toon with his famous grin, and the balance of golfing power had shifted, irrevocably.
Nevertheless, St Andrews is another course that, historically, has suited Watson's game. "I nearly won there in 1984, and in 1978 I was right up there until I had a 76 in my final round. I'm always excited on that first tee, although there are things that I haven't mastered on that golf course, nor will I ever master." Such as? "Such as the eighth hole, a really tricky par-three."
This is clearly the moment to tell the great man that his humble interviewer has had a hole-in-one on the eighth at St Andrews, and, bless him, he wants to know all about it. "I asked Jack how he played that hole and he gave me great advice," he adds. "I hit a natural draw and I never could stop the ball downwind, but Jack cuts it up into the sidewind. The key there is having the ball come down softly, not bounding 70ft away." Or better still, I daringly venture, stopping it by dumping it straight into the hole. He obliges me with a big laugh. "Yes, that helps matters."
However he plays next week, and whether or not he ever gets close to winning the Open again (the R&A having changed the rules so he can play on for five more years), Watson will for ever be hailed as one of the finest links players of all time. It is some distinction for a man who grew up more than 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean, and I ask him how it came about.
"In links golf you miss greens, and so you have to get the ball up and down. In that regard I was always at the top of the food chain. I was a great putter, a great chipper, and always pretty good at hitting the ball the right distance. In no wind, it's not a particularly good shot to hit the ball within 30ft of the target. In tough conditions it's a great shot."
But how can he operate in some of the tough conditions to which he refers, the kind of conditions most golfers hate? "Because I don't hate them. I grew up playing in the winter in Kansas City, in 50 degrees and 40mph winds. Scotland can throw nothing at me I haven't seen before, except maybe the haar [the east coast's rolling sea mist]. The year Ernie Els won at Muirfield , those were the worst conditions I've ever seen at the Open, and I missed the cut, but I was itching to be out there when most of them were probably itching to be indoors. They were hitting drivers into the fourth green and still couldn't get there. I would love to have tried that shot. And I guess that's the difference."
Despite being in his element in the teeth of the elements, despite the benefit of all that experience, and despite the enduring efficiency of that marvellously uncomplicated swing, there will of course come a time when Watson can no longer compete with the young bucks. That it hasn't come yet is cited by some ungenerous souls as a reason to scoff at golf. If a 59-year-old with a hip replacement can almost carry off one of the sport's greatest prizes, they sneer, does it even deserve to be called a sport?
"I am aware of that argument," Watson says. "But golf is not a talent, it's a sport. Jack, even when he was heavy, was a wonderful athlete, who played different sports to a very high level. As for myself, I am blessed with great genes. The hip replacement didn't affect my golf swing but did stop me sleeping, so it was more a lifestyle decision. I'm still in good shape, I can still play good golf. I don't know how long I'll continue to play but I do know that I will stop when I have no business being out there trying to win the tournament. When that time comes, Brian, it will be very sad for me."
And for the rest of us, Tom. And for the rest of us.