Should Tom Watson be allowed to play in the 2015 Open?

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Five-time Open champion Tom Watson has been given a special exemption to play in the 2015 Open at St Andrews, but is it right that the R&A have flouted their own rules for the sake of one player?

JT: I was really pleased to see that Tom Watson will be able to play in the Open at St Andrews next year and mark the end of his time in the championship at the Home of Golf. Too often it seems that golf, and sport in general, sticks with rigid rules and I think the R&A should be commended for showing some initiative and flexibility in allowing a great of the game to have a fitting Open finale. 

DM: We’re all looking forward to giving Tom Watson the send-off he deserves. This is a man who may well lead an American Ryder Cup team to victory on Scottish soil in a couple of months and he will still be revered by the home fans. I must say, though, I do have some issues with bending the rules at a time when the R&A are unashamedly pursuing an agenda of trying to assemble the strongest possible field for the Open. That is something that has come at the expense of a little romance disappearing from the qualifying process in recent years. I’m not sure anyone is arguing that Watson gets a place at St Andrews in 2015 because he makes the field stronger, are they?
I know I would rather watch Watson play every year than an amateur or Challenge Tour player that makes it through qualifying – JT JT: Stronger, no. But most certainly better. I know I would rather watch Watson play every year than an amateur or Challenge Tour player that makes it through qualifying. I think you’ve probably got to set this into context and say that Watson is a once in a generation player, so even if the R&A do bend their rules, it won’t really set much of a precedent. We should also remember that Watson is only in this position because he played so well at Turnberry in 2009 and got an extra five years in the tournament.

DM: Well, the truth is that the R&A had to fiddle with the rules after Watson’s amazing performance in 2009. Prior to that, they had lowered the age that past champions were exempt until from 65 to 60. At the time, Watson’s heroics at Turnberry only entitled him to play the following year. Then they created a new category which says past champions finishing in the top 10 get a further five-year exemption, which takes us up to this year. Actually, they probably should have thought then that Watson might want to finish at St Andrews. So it is a little bit of a fudge, and, instinctively, I am uncomfortable with that. I should say at this point that I have consistently argued for past champions receiving long exemptions – I think they add a great deal to the championship, and especially to those who actually attend the Open. It can make your day to watch one of the greats hit a shot at close quarters.

JT: Agreed. It does seem a little odd that this hasn’t been thought about up until now, but I suppose the R&A weren’t to know that he would still be playing now and be so prominent in the minds of UK golf fans as a Ryder Cup captain. Surely if one lesson is to come from this, it would be for longer exemptions for the greats of the game, as you say. If, hypothetically, you said that anyone who wins the Open three or more times gets a lifetime exemption, you would only have Woods, Faldo, Watson, Nicklaus and Player that would currently be able to make some kind of appearance. Obviously they all wouldn’t play now, but the point is that it is a very select bunch that wouldn’t devalue the field.

DM: As an invitational tournament, the Masters can and does do what it wants. Hence you get some curious invites to prominent Asian players that you can only conclude are based more on TV ratings in that part of the world than a player’s pedigree. It’s a little different with the Open, as they are trying to set out their rules with the aim of assembling the strongest-possible field. What we can agree on is that Watson’s farewell that week will be the story of the Open, at least until the Friday, presuming he doesn’t make the cut. And all true golf fans will enjoy giving him the send-off he deserves in the country where he won four of his five Claret Jugs – though curiously he never won at St Andrews.

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