`Old Tom' is back with the mortals

If he triumphs on Sunday he would equal Harry Vardon's record six Open victories but these days, Tom Watson's moments of glory are all behind him
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If Tiger Woods needs to learn that sporting greatness can disappear almost as quickly as it arrives he would do worse than study Tom Watson. For eight years he touched heights few have enjoyed, then suddenly, unexpectedly, he was on nodding terms with mortality again.

From 1975 to 1983 the American accrued major titles at the rate of one a year. Five Open Championships were included in that haul and the Scots were so used to him turning up on their courses and walking away with the booty they adopted him. "Our Tom" wore a "Scotland the Brave" scarf round his neck as he celebrated his win at Royal Troon in 1982, the bond between player and crowd complete.

Seventeen years on Our Tom has turned old Tom, a player revered for past deeds rather than current ones. He might win the Open Championship on Sunday, just as Seve Ballesteros or Ian Baker-Finch might too. Only no one is holding their breath. Least of all Watson.

Now 48, he knows it would require little short of a miracle for him to get near the claret jug. He finished first here in 1982, fourth in 1989 and next to nowhere in 1987. "My game is not in the state it has been when I have won tournaments," he said. "Tomorrow is going to be `is it going to work or not?'."

The chances are not favourable for the former champion. The last person successfully to defend an Open title - in 1983 - his win at the Memorial at Muirfield Village last year was his first of any kind for nine years. He hits and hopes now where before he hit and knew.

"He did it in such a short span, totally dominant," Nick Faldo said of the Watson years yesterday. "He was such a strong ball striker, to play in the wind, and was the best putter around by miles. With that combination in your bag you will always have a chance on the links."

As Faldo intimated, it was Watson's work on the greens that partly ushered him away from his peers. He could mount a ferocious attack on the hole, forcing his putt beyond it in the sure knowledge he would always get the one coming back if he missed. Once that certainty had gone, when the four- footers began to slip by, he was a fading force as the golfer.

"The putting has created mental torment at times," Watson said, empathising with the problems Ballesteros and Baker-Finch are having. "I couldn't win when I was missing the tiddlers. My one consolation was my long game. It hadn't all gone to hell."

Watson, who changes his putter almost as often as his clothes, will use what he describes as the "Ray Floyd stance" on the greens today, which sounds like imitation to the point of catastrophe. Better to dwell on former glories than present turmoil.

"I was given it here," he said recalling his Troon triumph 15 years ago. "When Nick Price won at Turnberry he said `I had one hand on the trophy a while back, now I have both hands'. He was referring to 1982 when he had a three or four-shot lead with six holes to play. Basically he gave it to me on a silver platter."

If that fourth title was a gift, the second, in 1977, was wrenched from the hands of Jack Nicklaus as they went head-to-head over the last two rounds. "That was maybe the most satisfactory win I've ever had," Watson said. "Whenever you play against the best player and come out victorious that gives you an extra bit of satisfaction."

It was one of the great finishes to an Open and the outcome was more surprising because Watson could not stand the brand of golf he was excelling in. "I didn't like links golf," he said, "the bumps and bounces and the so-called bad breaks. I liked target golf, putting the ball in the air and stopping it. That's the way I'd learnt the game."

His conversion came, ironically, when he was crawling instead of flying, at Lytham in 1979. "I played miserably," he said. "I made the cut but struggled all week." His compensation was a new understanding of the game.

"I started watching Lee Trevino. He couldn't hit it high or hook it but the more I watched him the more I knew he had other weapons in his arsenal. Aiming into banks or running the ball to the hole, these are shots you don't see much on television. This is a game of shot-making values."

Having learned to love the links, Watson's name will always be associated with them and another Open, unlikely as it would seem, would push him alongside Harry Vardon as the holder of a record six titles. That, he agrees, is worth a dream or two.

"At this stage of my career any victory would do," he said. "although the Open would obviously mean more. I'd like to see if I can do it again and again and again. Like the old mentality, never look back, only forward. Let's go and kick everyone's butt one more time."

If only greatness would embrace him one more time.