Tom Watson is crying. He has just been looking out onto the 17th and 18th holes of the links at St Andrews from a third-storey suite at the Old Course Hotel. The scene is set for his farewell walk over the Swilcan Bridge and down towards the R&A clubhouse on the edge of the Auld Grey Toon.
Watson is already picturing the moment of his long goodbye. His eyes fill up. On a fleeting visit to the Home of Golf six weeks ago, he watches as ordinary golfers wave to an imaginary crowd in the empty grandstands and pretend they are champions. When Watson takes his final steps across the most famous piece of golfing real estate and bids farewell to the Open later this week, one of the game’s greatest players will do so accompanied by a cacophony of applause, and whistles sounding like ten thousand kettles boiling at once. He is reminded of this but he’s already playing it out in his head.
He takes a seat back in the room at a dark oak table. On it sits one of his five silver Claret Jugs – a replica of course. The priceless original is under lock and key in the R&A clubhouse. The tears welling up in Watson’s eyes create an uncomfortable atmosphere. The reality hits home that his time is almost up. The click-click-clicking of the photographer’s camera shutter is the only sound in the room. It makes the mood worse. Watson takes a moment. He blinks, rubs his eyes, then breaks the silence. “Well, I’ve already had the tears,” he said.
His final Open has brought back memories of Jack Nicklaus’s in 2005. Watson was crying then, too. “I thought I, too, was making my final walk over the Swilcan Bridge,” he said. The R&A granted him a five-year automatic qualification into the Open for finishing runner-up at Turnberry in 2009 but later extended it by one year to allow him to finish his career, like Nicklaus, at the Home of Golf this year. “I had the chance to go over the bridge with Jack and I was crying like a baby,” he said. “I was walking with Jack for the first two rounds and every grandstand he passed on every hole, he had a standing ovation. I still have tears thinking about it. Here I was playing with the greatest golfer who has ever played in his final championship. It meant a great deal to me to be paired with him. After all the ceremony on the bridge was over with, we hit our shots onto the green and we were walking up to the crowd. There was this continual tumult. I was still crying,” Watson said. “Jack’s son Steve (who was caddying for his father) was crying, too. Jack wasn’t crying but he was a little misty-eyed. Coming onto the green, he put his arm around me and said, ‘come on, Tom. You have a tournament to play here. Get a hold of yourself’. I had to make par to make the cut. He knew that. That’s Jack. Always aware of the situation.”
This time it will be Watson’s turn for the tumult. Is he prepared for all the emotion? “We’ll see,” he said sounding resigned to the inevitable. The R&A would be well advised to hand out tissues with the official programmes.
Watson’s place among the legends of the game is assured. Eight majors championship victories including five Claret Jugs. His Open triumphs place him in an exclusive club alongside James Braid and JH Taylor from the sepia pages of golf’s history books, as well as Australia’s 85-year-old Peter Thomson. Only Harry Vardon is ahead of them with six Claret Jugs. Watson is humble about his status. “Well, I’ve had more than my share of good luck in the Open Championship,” he said.
It was luck or, rather, bad luck, that comes with the lie of the land of links golf that Watson couldn’t handle when he first travelled from Kansas City, Missouri,as a 25-year-old to play in the Open at Carnoustie in 1975.
He played a practice round on the Monday at nearby Monifieth Golf Club. “I hit my first drive down the middle of the fairway but when I got to where I thought my ball was, there was no sign of it,” Watson said. One of his playing partners found it in a pot bunker on the edge of the fairway. “That’s not the way the game should be played,” he remembered saying. Having been brought up playing American courses with lush fairways and greens, Watson didn’t care much for the bump and run, scorched-earth seaside variety.
“I have to tell you I was not a fan of links golf,” he said. “I did not like the uncertainties of it. I did not like the unlucky bounces or the lucky bounces. I didn’t like the fact that you had to land the ball short of the greens. I was a high-ball hitter. I didn’t like it for several years after I started playing here.”
Watson was still gifted enough to win the Open at his first attempt at Carnoustie and again at Turnberry in 1977 and Muirfield in 1980 – and still he had no love for this original form of the game. “Finally, it was in ’81 that I had the moment that really transformed my dislike into love,” he said. “I was with Sandy Tatum (former president of the United States Golf Association) who had invited me to some of the courses he had played when he was going to Oxford University. He took me up to Royal Dornoch. We were playing in the morning on a beautiful day but it clouded over and started to rain and we walked. I looked out and saw it was raining sideways. I said, ‘Tatum, you wanna play?’ And so we went back out and played another 18 holes. I turned to him late in the round and said, ‘Sandy, this is as much fun as I’ve ever had playing golf’.” Two more Open victories followed at Royal Troon in 1982 and Royal Birkdale in 1983.
There won’t be a spare seat to be had in the grandstand later this week when Watson poses for his farewell photograph on the Swilcan Bridge. There won’t be a dry eye to be seen around the 18th green, either.
Watson was one successful putt away from winning the 2009 Open at Turnberry as a 59-year-old. It’s not that long ago. He can’t possibly win the Open at his last attempt as he did at his first, can he? “I don’t know,” he said. “I still feel I can play the course and do well. We’ll see where the chips fall. I do know my swing speed has gone down in the last two years. I don’t hit the ball as far. So I’m eliminating tools from the tool box to be able to compete. Those tools that I do have had better be sharp and well oiled.”
Whatever happens, one thing is certain: there will be tears.
Tom Watson is a Rolex Testimonee. Rolex is Patron and Official Timekeeper of the Open.Reuse content