Golf: Failure the spur for Watson

A champion who hated links found a key to success of child-like simplicity. By Guy Hodgson at Carnoustie
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TOM WATSON is the embodiment of golfing contradictions. A man who loves Britain and Ireland, he once hated the Open; an uncertain putter at the beginning and end of his career, in between he was fearless; branded a choker by the American press, he won eight majors.

The 49-year-old from Kansas was back here yesterday, visiting the place for the first time since he confounded his many critics by winning the 1975 Open Championship. He was delighted to be here, of course, but true to the variants that have illuminated his passage, he arrived bearing a big suitcase of sadness.

A thin smile was there but it did not obliterate a turmoil in his life that has included the end of his 25-year marriage to Linda and rumours that he had been forced to quit booze because it had taken too firm a grip on him. Even on Sunday a tabloid carried the quote: "Divorce is like death. I don't know if the pain will ever leave."

Yesterday he wanted to dwell on his success rather than his clear sense of domestic failure, revisiting 1975 with a relish even if his first impression was considerable cooler. He and his fellow American John Mahaffey arrived at Carnoustie to practise, only to be rebuffed immediately because the course was full of qualifiers.

That introduction to the Open was not benign and neither was his first handshake with links play. Watson, then 25, was used to the soft-green target golf of his native land and when he did get on a course, the nearby Monifieth, his dismay was profound when he cracked a drive straight down the middle and could not find his ball.

Only a lengthy search located it in a small pot bunker some 30 yards to the left of where it should have been. "I said: `Oh, oh, this is a different type of golf'. It was a rude shock. I was somewhat taken aback by that bounce."

Which is to understate the case. Watson hated golf by the sea where the vagaries of the weather and the rock-hard fairways seemed to make a mockery of the game. He won here and was not impressed, then he triumphed again at Turnberry in 1977 and still was underwhelmed and it was not until two years later that he found his Road to Damascus.

"I stopped fighting myself," he said. "I stopped saying `I don't like this kind of golf' and got on with it. I had to change my attitude, so I pretended I was a little kid again, when you couldn't hit the ball very far and had to run the ball on the greens. That association really worked."

And how. Watson, with five Open victories, surpassed all his peers, even Jack Nicklaus, and you have to go back to Harry Vardon and the turn of the century (when the competition was considerably less severe) to find anyone who has won more. He now adores links golf to an extent where he prefers it to any other.

He spent last week touring Ireland's seaside courses in a van, eschewing the helicopters preferred by Tiger Woods and Greg Norman - "I like to see the country," he said- making for Ballybunion on the west coast, where he has such an affinity for the place that he has been asked to be captain next year.

"It's a wonderful honour. I love Ballybunion. I have the same feeling about the place as I have for St Andrew's. It's a course you never truly understand. There's always that element that is going to grab you, choke you to death." As a further endorsement he even broke into a short rendition of "When Irish eyes are smiling."

Twenty-four years ago the feelings were that Carnoustie would not need to choke Watson, he would do it himself. In the 1974 and 1975 US Opens at Winged Foot and Medinah he had squandered winning opportunities and the presumption was that here was a talented player without the cerebral fortitude to become a champion.

The Carnoustie that had been barred to him when he first arrived was laid open by benign conditions over the first three days, however, and Watson, to his own surprise, found himself within striking distance of the leaders. A lucky meeting with Byron Nelson earned him the advice "shoot par and you'll have a good chance" and although he could manage only a one-over 72 it was enough to get him into a play-off with Jack Newton, of Australia.

Newton, who later would lose an arm and eye when he collided with the propeller of a light aeroplane but is here as a television commentator, sensed a weakness in his opponent and went for it. "I'd heard Tom was a bit suspect with the putter so I tried to putt out every time in the play-off, leaving him with a tester," he recalled. "The trouble is he went on to show he was one of the greatest putters who ever lived."

Instead it was Newton who buckled on the 90th hole, finding a bunker with his approach and missing from 10 feet after he had blasted out.

The Watson era, which would encompass five Open wins over a period of eight years, had begun. "I think Winged Foot and Medinah helped quite a bit," said Watson, who is preparing to start competing on the Seniors Tour when he turns 50 in September, "because I had played well in a major championship with all the chips on the table.

"I knew I could compete. It was up to me to play the full 72 holes. More than anything I learned I hate losing."

Yet he is here knowing he is almost certainly too old to win. Is he reliving old glories or forgetting recent wounds? Only he knows but the answer is probably both. Another contradiction to ponder.