The weather on the Saturday morning of the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St George’s was initially benign, the sky a lifeless grey.
It was still, eerily so, and the locals knew why. This was the proverbial calm before the storm and by the time that most of the field had made it on to the course, angry, prolonged bursts of rainfall and cold gusts were whipping across the Kent links. It was also dark.
All told, it was not a day for golf but this was the Open Championship which, until last year’s rearrangement at Hoylake at least, cares little for the comfort of its competitors. The only consideration is that the course remains technically playable.
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This, then, was no country for old men, not even the 61-year old Thomas Sturges Watson, five times a winner of this magnificent championship, who had teed off at precisely the wrong time.
The first four holes at Sandwich lay pretty much due south away from the clubhouse – and that meant walking into the storm.
The hardest hole was the famous 4th. At this 496-yard par 4 a bold drive is taken over the enormous sleepered bunker. Even with the tee moved up it was close to unplayable.
After a driver and a fairway wood, Watson was still left with a full iron shot. No matter – one putt later and he was writing down a four.
Perhaps even more remarkably, he walked off the green with a broad smile on his face.
If anything could sum up why this seemingly ageless American from Kansas City, Missouri, with his Huckleberry Finn-style gap-toothed grin has won the hearts of British golf fans in the 40 years since he first played in the Open Championship this was it.
“That’s the toughest hole in all of links golf right there,” he said.
“That 4th hole, trying to make four on that green. I was smiling because I finally made a par on that hole. I wasn’t dissatisfied with a bogey there because it’s such a tough hole.”
He was also smiling because behind the green, miles from shelter, was a packed grandstand.
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“It’s a mutual respect that I have for them, for loving the game like I do. They have a passion for the game and they love the game.
“This is no better illustrated than Sandwich in the rain on that Saturday. All the stands were chock-a-block full. They were full of people sitting there in the driving rain, in their rainsuits and their brollies.
“You wouldn’t see that in America. They would be empty. And that’s just the attitude of the fans here. They want to see golf and embrace it.
“I don’t know if I smile all the way around but I’m enjoying myself,” he said. “The people watching us are enjoying themselves, you can see that they’re into the game. And they understand that if you hit a really good shot that just edges up on the green or gets close to the green, they’ll clap because they understand the difficulty.
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“Only basically here do people have that understanding of the shot itself, they’re so educated on that.
“And that’s why I smile. It’s enjoyable to play in front of your peers, but also it’s enjoyable to play in front of people who understand the game so well.”
His final opportunity to do so is upon us, and there will barely be a dry eye in St Andrews come the Friday or Sunday of Open week when he makes his final competitive crossing over the Swilcan Burn.
“It feels somewhat like a death in the sense that it’s final, but the other thing is that there are so many great memories about it that it fills the void of disappointment or the melancholy-ness of the finality of it. It’s the way you look at it and I don’t know how I’m going to react when I come here – probably a few tears but we’ll just have to see.”
Watson never won at St Andrews – or at least hasn’t yet – but few would begrudge him the chance to bring down the curtain here, even though he had to make a special request.
“I asked Peter Dawson last year if it would be possible for me to play one more Open Championship, because last year it was the end of my exemption, to be able to play St Andrews in my last Open but he said “I’ll get back to you”. And very shortly afterwards he said: “You’re on”.
It can be taken as read that Dawson, the R&A’s chief executive, did not have to think for too long before making what is, it should be remembered, an extraordinary exception.
“Tom is the most successful Open champion still playing and has made a huge contribution to the Championship over the last 40 years,” said Dawson.
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“His performances in winning the Open on five occasions were truly outstanding and to come so close to winning a sixth in 2009 demonstrates his longevity. I’m sure fans everywhere will look forward to seeing him play again at St Andrews.”
For his part, the 65-year-old makes a typically lyrical case about why the end should come on the Old Course.
“I love links golf and this is the father of links golf,” said Watson. “This golf course, the history, almost every great player has played here.
“And I say to people who have never played here: ’When you play there, you’re going to play on the grounds that every great golfer in the history of the game has walked. You’ll be walking down the history of the game, from its nascent beginnings.”
It is less well known that Watson’s love affair with the traditional form of the game was not immediate, even if his first attempt to win the Open was a successful one.
If asked by a Spieth or a Fowler to explain what it takes to become a great Open player you might be surprised by the answer.
“Don’t do what I did,” he insists. “Embrace links golf earlier than I did. Even though I won early I had a love-hate for the golf courses themselves.
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“Don’t get frustrated by the bad bounces. Don’t get frustrated by the conditions. Dance with the one what brought you – a Southern term in our country. Go with the flow here, and take what it gives you and learn what you can do.
“The other thing is that it took me a while to really enjoy the game played on links golf, but you have to get the right distance. I always fought trying to get the right distance. At first I tried to carry the ball on the greens and stop it. I couldn’t do that – and that frustrated me.
“I didn’t like the game that way. To bounce the ball when you have to play away from the flags at times; when there’s no way to stop the ball at times to get it close, you have to play up to the side of a bunker.
“That’s particularly true here at St Andrews where they can hide some of the flags; you can’t aim at the flags but have to aim at the sides of them, and get the right distance so you have a reasonably good putt at birdie.
“To get the exact distances is the key to playing links golf. It’s a lot easier in soft conditions where you can stop the ball quicker. But in firm conditions, you add the bumps and the humps of the links greens and fairways, to negotiate those and get the right balance, play the wind correctly. To get the right distances is the most important factor of playing them well.”
Despite his initial discomfort, a second Claret Jug followed in 1977 at Turnberry – the Duel in the Sun when he and Jack Nicklaus effectively played in a tournament of their own. Next up was Muirfield, then Troon and finally Birkdale. Five titles in nine Opens is a success rate only
ever matched by James Braid.
“I had a love-hate relationship with the courses at first” “I had a huge stretch of golf there for a number of years where I was playing well. My short game was always very good, and I think a lot of my victories had to do with being able to get the ball up and down.
“A lot of golfers, especially in poor conditions, are going to miss greens and that was my forte – when I missed a green I was able to get the ball up and down. That’s what you have to do here.”
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When he says ’here’, Watson surely means Scotland, which is where he collected four of his five Claret Jugs. In England it was a different story. Apart from Birkdale in 1983, his best finish in 16 attempts was 18th. He never finished in the top 25 at Lytham or Hoylake.
“It’s just a coincidence,” he insists. “I’d like to have a more romantic answer than that but I don’t. It never made any difference at all, it was just dependent on how I was playing.
What you always want going into any tournament is to be playing well. Sometimes I wasn’t playing well but at times I was playing very well and ended up winning.
“It’s not over until the last hole. In ’82 Nick Price led by five shots after the 9th, and I eagled the 11th to start chipping away. That was his doing and he didn’t win it. That was the one I kind of backed in the back door.
“All the others I kind of kept up with them, and ended up winning. Muirfield, I won by four, and that was the largest margin of victory, but I was playing pretty well. So it didn’t really matter where I was playing. If I was playing well, I thought I had a chance.”
“My victories had a lot to do with my short game”
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That includes St Andrews in 1984, when Seve Ballesteros beat him into second place, and Turnberry in 2009 when the sporting storyline to end all sporting storylines was only denied by a capricious seaside bounce and his approach shot bounding through the 18th green.
“It was closer in Turnberry in 2009. I had one hand on the Claret Jug there. As Nick Price said in ’94 when he won at Turnberry: ’I had one hand on the jug in 1982, another hand on it in 1988 at Lytham, and now I have both hands on it.”
In 40 years of competing at the Open, there is little Watson has not seen.
“The infrastructure has changed dramatically,” he says.
“The commercialisation has changed dramatically. It’s a huge event now for golf; people want to be associated with the Open.”
On the course, only in the last couple of years does Watson feel the passing of time has fundamentally altered his approach. He is now at a disadvantage because the tees have moved further back as his physical capabilities have waned.
“On the Old Course, with the 4th tee ball, I can’t hit it far enough to hit it over the mound on the left there, where I used to be able to carry it over into the fairway. I might have to play on the mound anyway, and play it out of short rough.
“Or, if there’s long rough, I’ll have to go off up the right. And there’s a fairway that snakes up to the right but it’s very narrow, and there’s lots of trouble there. So that’s the tee ball that probably concerns me the most.
“I can’t hit the ball far enough now to get over the Hell Bunker at 14. Before, I could knock it onto the green in two but now I have to play it
well off to the left and put in a shot from that angle.”
This is the sportsman’sdouble bind of the ravages of time: your decline is exacerbated by the athleticism of the younger generation.
But for all of Bubba’s bendy power, Dustin’s casual litheness and Rory’s embodiment of the modern athlete, the knowing golf fan will only have eyes for one man at St Andrews.
A 65-year-old with a slight stoop and a warm smile. Here for one last time. Don’t miss it.
• Tom Watson has been a Polo Golf ambassador since 1993. Ralph Lauren is a patron and official outfitter of the Open Championship