Tom Watson: The old man will roll back the tears on Old Course

The 60-year-old with the false hip suffered one of sport's cruellest cuts last year but bounced back and is ready for his latest Auld Grey test this week. James Corrigan speaks to Tom Watson
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The Independent Online

The son took it hardest of all. Michael Watson watched last year's Open Championship snatched away from his father in golf's cruellest moment and he cried. And he cried and he cried and he cried...

In fact, when everyone else had given up on the fantasy and trudged back to the Stewart Cink reality of normal life, when even the old man, himself, had figured, "some things are just too good to be true", Michael couldn't let go. For him that ball was still in the air, inexorably heading for its resting place within a simple two-putt of the pin; for him Tom Watson was still admiring its progress with the serenity which would be the theme for sport's greatest story. And then the phone rang.

On Friday, in a suite of the Park Lane Hotel in London, Watson Snr recalled the call he had to make to his 26-year-old son that Monday night. "Michael was extremely dejected, inconsolable even," said the 60-year-old. "After 24 hours he was still heartbroken and I had to phone him and say, 'You know son, this is not the end of the world. It might feel like it right now, but it really isn't'. I told him to think of all the terrible things that happen in the world. 'This is just golf,' I told him. 'We have to get on with it.' I think that helped him, although I'm not sure he's totally over it."

In truth, Michael is not the only one. The grey-haired galleries will assemble in their multitudes around the Old Course this week and afford the champions their usual ration of hero-worship. But then they will see Watson and the din will take on a more sincere tone. There goes Tom the wrinkly, who relived their dreams, who redefined what was possible for a 59-year-old with a false hip. And the fact it turned out to be not possible will only make their adoration that much more intense. Sympathy mixed with admiration is the most potent cocktail known to fankind.

"It's funny, but this image of me representing the older generation has been projected on to me," said Watson. "I'm happy to have it, humble to have so many people telling me I inspired them, but it wasn't something I ever set out to do. You know, I never once thought about my age and this supposed handicap I was trying to overcome. I felt just like I always have; a professional golfer playing in a professional tournament; playing this game for a living. Of course there was emotion and I talked of the spirituality I felt. But it was still all about being there as a competitor. That never changed. And nor did the feeling of defeat."

The feeling began and to many respects ended when that perfectly-struck eight-iron ran through the green. Many have blamed the hard bounce for the injustice, the illogical scoot forward which characterises the seaside test. But Watson reveals there was another factor. "There was a gust," he said. "That was confirmed to me over the summer by a photographer who said a terrific gust of wind hit his camera and knocked it off angle when he was taking the picture of my shot. Maybe I should get hold of that wonky picture to sum it all up. It's just part of the game. You have to accept it. What else can you do?"

Well, Watson could have screamed at the heavens and demanded an answer there and then. Instead he seemed more worried how rotten everyone else felt. "I suppose I was in a way but then I knew how to deal with it as I've had my golfing disappointments before," he said. Indeed, he has. And nowhere more so than at St Andrews.

Watson's previous most infamous shot came at the 17th in 1984. The headlines that week said the then 34-year-old was not simply in the Auld Grey Toon to win his third Open in a row or even to equal Harry Vardon's record of six Claret Jugs, but to exorcise the St Andrews ghosts of 1978 which saw him blow a final-round lead with a 76. So there he stood on the Road Hole fairway sharing the lead with Severiano Ballesteros, and Jack Nicklaus's demand that "all great Open champions must win at St Andrews" was about to be realised. What followed was a two-iron to within the shadow of the wall which continues to baffle aficionados to this very day.

"You could say it's been analysed," laughed Watson. "What more can I say? I wish I could replay it. I just hit a terrible shot. But as for the decision-making, I hit the same club from the same place in practice to very good effect. Perhaps it was too heroic but it was on an upslope and that stopped me playing a low one down to the front of the green.

"And the way I look at it is that Seve won by two anyway as he birdied the last moments after my two-iron. If it was one shot I really would have felt I'd have lost it. But then, so what if I did? I won the 1982 Open at Troon because Nick Price lost it and I won the next year at Birkdale after Hale Irwin had whiffed a putt from a few inches and missed a play-off by one. That's why I can't say St Andrews owes me anything. How could I ever say links golf owes me anything? When I have gained from others' bad breaks, just like they have gained from mine?"

It is with such hard-earned circumspection that Watson will revisit the Home of Golf tomorrow. To be honest, it can't feel much like home. Not compared to Turnberry anyway. "When I turned up last year I definitely sensed I had an advantage as I'd played there about six times and the majority of the field hadn't played there at all," he said.

"But I won't enjoy the same advantage at St Andrews. The pros play there every five years, indeed every year in the Dunhill. But still, I'm not sure it matters how many times you've played the Old Course. If someone tells you they've figured out every hole, well they haven't. There's a few that remain enigmas to me. The 12th looks easy enough but I still have no clue what's best to do with that tee-shot. And the 17th. Any ideas?"

Not that Watson is writing off his chances of staging something with rather more substance than yet another golfing trip over the Swilcan Bridge down on to memory fairway. "I'll know by Wednesday if I have a chance, but it'll all be to do with how I'm playing not how the course is playing," he said. "Since the R&A extended the age limit to 65 after what I did last year and Greg [Norman] did at Birkdale the year before, I have another six Opens left. And I think I can play all the courses on the rota and will have a legitimate shot at doing well. That's the beauty of links golf, the ball runs. If I turned up at Bethpage Black for a US Open I wouldn't have a prayer. I'm just not long enough. Length doesn't matter so much at the British. You can always find a way to get around."

Watson will plot his path the next few days before taking his place in the Champions Challenge on Wednesday. The four-hole celebration of the Open's 150th anniversary is certain to be rich in nostalgia; but it will also be tinged by sadness. Ballesteros has been told by his doctors to stay at home. "I so wanted Seve to be there as I know what it would have meant to him," said Watson. "I was at Jack's tournament at the Memorial where we had a video message from him. He spoke well, still showed the same passion. But I'm worried for him. Someone told me he's doing a video link next week to the press room. I'll be watching, for sure."

Yet he will do so feeling for a friend, not looking for perspective. Watson is the last man who needs any of that. "Golf's been a labour of love and I have had moments when I've hated the game," he said. "When you look at your career there are benchmarks of highs and lows and for me Turnberry just happened to come top in creating those benchmarks. There was the fantastic feeling of '77 when Jack and I duelled but then came the immense disappointment of '94 when my putting game left me. And then last year came the great high and the great low mixed in together. I will go back to Turnberry. In the future I plan to bring my son and his friends over to play." Maybe, he'll show Michael where the ball bounced. "It's just a patch of green. That's all it is."

'Tom Watson – Lessons of a Lifetime' is out now on DVD, £29.99

life and times

Born 4 September 1949 in Kansas City, Missouri

Height 5ft 9in

Turned pro 1971

Major Wins Five Opens (1975, 1977, 1980, 1982, 1983), two US Masters (1977, 1981), one US Open (1982)

Other titles 68 pro wins including 13 on the Champions Tour

Career earnings $23 million

Personal life gained a degree in psychology at Stanford. Divorced first wife Linda in 1997 after 25 years. Their children are Meg, 29, and Michael, 26, who caddies for his dad. Married Hilary in 1999 and they have three stepchildren. Has designed seven courses, including Ballybunion Golf Club in Co Kerry

Charity work Watson has raised more than $12m for a children's hospital in Kansas City by hosting the Children's Mercy Golf Tournament. He also visited Iraq in 2007 and 2009 and has raised money for "Wounded Warriors".

Did you know? Watson was made an honorary member of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, the fifth American to receive the honour behind golfers Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen and former US president George W Bush.

Chris Heal