From St Enodoc to Muirfield and Porthcawl to Turnberry, Tom Watson describes his enduring love for British and Irish courses.
To listen to Tom Watson on British and Irish golf is to hear stories from ever since he first arrived on these shores in 1975. So if you had to read someone’s verdict on our great courses, he would be pretty close to the top of the list.
Well, you’re in luck, because in this heartwarming essay he reveals his affection for a selection of our classics – including some great tales along the way.
Tom Watson on … the joy of the links game
There are about 230 true links courses in the world, most of them in the UK. It took me four years to start liking links, liking the way the game is played on a links. Some people never enjoy it. But you have to play the course, and the luck of the bounce. Sometimes imagination comes into play big time – that’s the beauty of links golf.
At Sandwich one year someone said in a practice round, “links golf… I love it. All we do all year is just play yardage, ball, air, flag, yardage”. Here you get the yardage but then you start thinking, ‘how do I get this ball where I want it to go?’ Sometimes you just can’t get it there. That day, we played two par 3s downwind… couldn’t get on the green.
Tom Watson on … Muirfield
When I won there in 1980, the fairways were very hard, and it was running fast. It wasn’t a driving course then and it is even less of one now because usually it is softer, like in 2002. And, the fairways are wider – especially a hole like No. 8.
It’s a fine golf course though. It’s one of my favourite on the Open rotation simply because it has a lot of varieties because of the direction the holes play. You play clockwise, you play counterclockwise coming in and you get the full effects of the wind, the different directions of it.
If Tour events were on links? Everybody would be bald because they’d be pulling their hair out! They would. Links golf is fun to play, but you need a break.
No.1 there is the toughest opening hole in Open golf, I think. It really plays tough, because the fairway is narrow and the rough is usually unplayable. You can’t find your ball in the rough, so you better put the ball in the fairway.
Tom Watson on … Porthcawl
Add some wind, and it really challenges. It’s a great test of golf. The difference of Porthcawl compared to other Open venues is the greens have movement to them. You have hugely-contoured greens that fall away from you, like the 18th.
And then you have greens that go uphill, and the green just steps up and up. Muirfield has some contours to their greens too and it’s probably the closest I can think of to Porthcawl.
There’s movement in their greens, but not as much as Porthcawl.
Then you have downhill shots and uphill shots – that’s what I like about the course; the variety of elevation changes and the variety of green contours.
Tom Watson on … Turnberry
Any time you see the big white hotel up on the hillside, the memory banks start to release some of the many great memories I’ve had there. I’ve had some wonderful times there, and obviously ‘77 was one of my great memories.
Jack says he doesn’t remember anything about the last day; well, I remember every one of his shots and every one of my shots!
I know they’ve changed it recently but that whole area around No.8, No.9 and No.10 is wonderful, beautiful. It reminds me of Cypress Point; the smell, the look, the height, the elevation.
The 10th, the way it has always been designed along the water – how many holes on the Open rotation are you actually penalised by going into the sea? I can’t think of a hole, maybe Troon’s 1st?
Tom Watson on … Ballybunion
It’s my favourite golf course. There is a natural beauty to it. This was the way golf is meant to be played – the epitome of links golf.
Sandy Tatum [former president of the USGA] organised a trip to play some links and Ballybunion was the first we played. I remember having a wee dram of whisky on the 15th tee, something I would never do on a course, but it felt appropriate at the time. I fell in love with the place, and the golf course. And I’ve brought friends – Crenshaw, Trevino – over to play there.
Playing downwind is harder sometimes, especially with the new ball. The new golf ball doesn’t spin enough. When it’s hard you need to spin, any ball. Before you could flight it a little bit down, but now that new ball is awfully hard to spin down.
Tom Watson on … Royal Troon
The ninth is one of the holes that always stands out in my mind for some odd reason. You’re back in the corner, changing direction, and it is usually the last hole you played downwind before you came back into the wind for the tough stretch.
It’s an awkward tee shot and it’s a blind second shot, and I like that hole. It’s a semi-blind second at least.
Every time you play a round, there are little battles to win, and once you get through 11 at Troon, I used to feel I had won my little battle.
Tom Watson on … Sunningdale
I first played it in the 70s with the Court of St James, who was one of my original sponsors on tour.
It is a wonderful golf course. Professional golfers look forward to going to golf courses we love, and that is one of mine.
The reasons for that are the variety of the shots you have to play, and some blind tee shots to understand… and of course there’s always the halfway house and the sausage rolls.
There is some elevation to deal with including probably the prettiest shot, from the 10th tee down the hill. That’s a beautiful tee shot with the three bunkers there, just perfect alignment. Love that tee shot.
Tom Watson on … Carnoustie
The thing about Carnoustie is it forces you to play through the bunkers. You can’t carry over the bunkers, you can’t lay up short of the bunkers because your shots are too long into the greens. There are certain holes you do lay up on. You see people laying up on the front nine, several times. But there are a number of tee balls where you have to play through the bunkers. You have to play by them, and it’s narrow.
That’s what makes Carnoustie so difficult. If you can negotiate that, if you can do that and get in very few bunkers, you do well there.
Tom Watson on … St Andrews
Whenever I went back there, it was like I was playing it all over again for the first time. I’d just simply go out to try to learn how to play St Andrews. It is a hard course to understand, and you had to relearn it and relearn it and relearn it all the time.
People don’t understand what links golf is. They see courses all around the world called ‘the links’. Well, they’re not links. They don’t play firm and hard and fast and fiery. They don’t play like that.
There are just certain things that are very difficult to comprehend; certain shots and certain places to go. You try to define what you are trying to do; I did the very same thing in 1978 when I played it for the first time and I did it every time afterwards in my practise rounds. The charm of the Old Course is that it starts you off with a handshake on No. 1 – yes, you have to carry the burn – and it finishes with a handshake, but that’s just after playing 17. You need to average out a couple of holes there, and as 17 is so hard, 18 is as easy.
Tom Watson on … south-west England
I played in the south-west of England because I have a friend who was the secretary of St Enodoc. He is a yank. A good friend from high school days. He invited me over to play. I thoroughly enjoyed the golf course.
We played Westward Ho! too, with the sheep and the horses. It was the first year they had mowed fairways, apparently, the grazers would not allow the fairways to be mown there, simply because their sheep and horses needed more fodder, but eventually they made a deal, 2,500 bucks to mow the fairways, so we played mown fairways at Westward Ho!
We played on a beautiful day, and St Enodoc is a very good course too, short but plays long. It’s a good golf course.
Tom Watson on … Walton Heath
Playing the Senior Open there a few years ago, the Ryder Cup in ‘81 started to come back to my mind.
I certainly remembered who my partner was; I played with Jack two rounds out of four and we won both our matches. When we played alternate-shot, I put him in the heather five times. And you can’t do that there; you can’t drive it in the heather. It is a heathland; it’s heather.
But I put my partner there and he got the ball on to the green four out of the five times. The other time was just off the green where I made an easy chip for par. That’s how great a player he was from the rough.
It’s a driver’s golf course. You have to drive the ball straight to prosper. Driving is the most critical thing there. You have to keep it out of the heather and out of the bunkers. It’s got a great finish, with lots of strong par 4s.