Tom Watson: Why I adore links golf
’ll tell you a story about Carnoustie.”
Tom Watson is warming up to a moving love letter to links golf.
It’s a eulogy borne out of passion for the genre – a deep appreciation of the joys, but also the challenges you can only find striking shots beside the sea.
Watson is utterly synonymous with this form of the game. Of his eight major titles only two – the Masters in 1977 and 1981 – came on courses that weren’t perched right next to sea or ocean.
His five Open wins, four in Scotland and the last at Royal Birkdale in 1983, mean he’s revered by the British, who like nothing more than a foreign player who embraces the strange bounces, the capricious nature and the sheer beauty of their courses.
The first came on his maiden try – 43 years ago at Carnoustie, the course famed as the hardest on the championship rota.
So when he gets onto the subject of the Angus links, I’m not in the mood to cut him short.
This is story time.
“Jack told this to me,” he starts. “Big Three golf – televised between Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
‘They played Carnoustie and he said the wind was blowing 25mph and the golf course was completely burned up.
“There was no grass on the golf course – no green grass.
He said ‘Tom, guess how many greens in regulation in total the three of us hit in 54 holes – 18 holes each?’
“I said ‘well, 15, 10?’ He said ‘no, we hit seven greens in regulation’.
He said that Arnie shot 79, Gary shot 78 and he shot 77 in Big Three golf at Carnoustie.
“Jack said ‘I hit four greens, Gary hit two and Arnold hit one’. One green Arnie hit in 18 holes.”
The tales about Watson’s introduction to links golf are the stuff of golfing folklore.
Ahead of that Carnoustie Open, having been told he couldn’t get on the championship venue until he’d qualified, he pitched up at Monifieth Medal for his first hole on a terrain utterly unfamiliar to him.
So the story goes, he crushed his driver down the fairway only to lose his ball. It was eventually located in a pot bunker 40 yards off line. It’s fair to say it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.
Indeed Watson’s appreciation for links, despite winning the Open that year, would be a gradual conversion.
“I didn’t like links golf,” he recalled. “I didn’t like St Andrews at all when I played it in ‘78 for the first time – blind shots, bouncing everywhere, having to land the ball short at number six to try and feel the way up the slope there and get it just in the flag position, just over the hill there. I didn’t like that.
“I wanted to play American golf – through the air and stop the ball on the greens. I could do it. But not on links courses.
“So I had to adjust my game. Carnoustie was dry, there was very little rough and the key there was to stay out of the bunkers.
“That’s the first thing – it’s very apparent when you play links golf. Stay out of the bunkers.”
In full flow, Watson continued: “I really didn’t like that type of golf. You just couldn’t feel the weight and the more I played it, the more I understood you had to feel the weight of the shot.
“It’s not about yardage, it’s about feel. At the Open (at Royal Birkdale last year) – I forget who hit the shot but he was in the rough.
“It was uphill and he had to hit over a cross bunker. He hit a sand wedge and it was downwind. Maybe it was 16.
“He landed it short of the green with a sand wedge, 30 yards short and the ball rolled onto the green another 30 feet – uphill with a sand wedge.
“Now, how do you feel that? A sand wedge, you normally hit it and it stops and backs up. He had to feel that shot to roll it out of the rough, with not a lot of spin. He had to feel how far that ball was going to roll. That’s the element of a great links player.
“How can you feel that type of distance? It is all about distance control.
“American golf is pretty simple. Your distance is usually pretty spot on and you can usually stop the ball quickly. Over here you can’t and that’s what the secret is – know your distances.”
Prior to the Open at Royal Birkdale last year, Watson flew into Scotland for a “true links” experience – a gathering of close family and friends at some of the country’s most venerable links: Royal Dornoch, Nairn, Castle Stuart and Brora.
— Tom Watson (@TomWatsonPGA) July 18, 2017
No cameras, no publicity – just a golfer, and his pals, enjoying a knock. It’s hard to think of a more romantic golfing image.
“We flew in from Inverness, went up to the north and just had a marvellous time.
“Brora was a wonderful links golf course. I had a very difficult time with it.
“Playing the incoming nine downwind was really tough for me. I couldn’t keep the ball on the greens. I think I hit one green in regulation coming in – shot 76.
“My caddie Ron is looking at me: ‘Huh? This guy is supposed to be good.’ I’d like to play it again. I’d like to challenge it again. But it was very good.
— Tom Watson (@TomWatsonPGA) July 20, 2017
“The condition of all the courses we played were great but that day, when we played Brora, was my favourite day. We came back and ate dinner – at Dornoch again.
“This is about 5 or 5.30pm and I organised with the pro there if we could go out and play some foursomes golf with eight of us. “We teed off about 7pm and I got my trolley, and my bag, and I’m pushing it. “Everyone else is carrying. We go out there on the first hole.
“We end up playing the first six and the last six – beautiful day, cloudless, no wind and it was just delightful to play.”
Tom Watson was speaking as an ambassador for Rolex, which has been a Patron of The Open since 1981. For more information, visit their website.