Tom Watson finds inspiration again at Turnberry and takes British Open lead

Saturday July 18th, 2009
Tom Watson shot a five-under 65 in the first round.
Robert Beck/SI

TURNBERRY, Scotland — The man was always such a stoic. In his heyday, it was one of his most admirable qualities.

In the 1984 British Open, he clanked his second shot off the wall on the Road Hole at St. Andrews and lost to Seve Ballesteros. He could have blamed his caddie or crowd distraction or anything, but Tom Watson took his bogey like a man and finished the round. He never won another major, and he never blamed anything but the wrong swing at the wrong time. He could have won the 1987 U.S. Open at Olympic, but he got yippy with the putter and Scott Simpson won by a shot. Watson stood there and admitted it: I got yippy with the putter. Other golfers won't even mention the y-word.

But here's the thing about him: beneath the stoicism, he's all blood and guts and more messy than we would ever know. For nearly 20 years now, Watson, 59, has played his best golf when deeply inspired. In the first round of the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, ALS was already talking its toll on Bruce Edwards, Watson's great friend and caddie. Watson shot 65 and the two of them stole the day. Later that year, at the Senior British Open at Turnberry, with Bruce unable to travel and following the event from home, Watson won, for Bruce. In 2007 Watson played well at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am and said he found inspiration from playing with his son, Michael. A week later, when he won the Outback event in Tampa on the Champions Tour, Watson said his good play was a carryover from Pebble.

And then there was his 65 on Thursday and hard-fought 70 on Friday at Turnberry, where he won that Senior Open and, much more famously, the 1977 British Open over Jack Nicklaus. "She was defenseless," he said Thursday. First of all, who has enough old-fashioned grace to refer to a golf course as a lady anymore? And to admit that a good round is largely (not exclusively) a function of opportunity, playing in benign conditions? Sixty-five, from a man who is 59. If that score sounds familiar, it should. In '77, Nicklaus shot 66-65 on the weekend, and Watson shot 65-65 and won by a shot, in the heat and the dust. The Duel in the Sun.

Again on the first two days of this Open, he played on inspiration — from the 2003 win at Turnberry, from the scores and scores of good shots he hit in '77, and from a text message he received from Barbara Nicklaus on Wednesday. (Yes, Barbara Nicklaus texts. And Tom Watson does, too. "Just don't ask me to tweet or twit or whatever you call that," he said.) Barbara wished him good luck. He texted back, "We really miss you here."

"I think there was some spirituality out there today," Watson said on Thursday. "The serenity was pretty neat."

Nicklaus helped make Watson, and Watson helped make Nicklaus. Poor Tiger. He's doing it all by himself. In the '94 Open at Turnberry, Watson might have won, but his putter was AWOL. On that Sunday night, deeply disappointed, Jack and Barbara and Tom and his wife at the time, Linda, had a big hotel dinner with "a couple bottles of wine," Watson was remembering after his Thursday 65. After dinner, the disappointed Watson and Big Jack went out and played the tiny par-3 course at Turnberry. It was about 11 p.m. when a security guard was going to chase them off. Telling the story, Watson put on his best Scottish accent and said, in the voice of the security guard, "Oh, Mr. Nicklaus — carry on." Good times.

Jack and Barbara — and Watson's current wife, Hilary — were there for the 2003 Senior British Open win, without the bottles of wine, at least for Tom, who doesn't drink these days. This year, it's Hilary and assorted friends. On the bag is Neil Oxman, who first encouraged Bruce Edwards to ask Tom Watson for work way back when in 1973. Watson's been saying the same thing for some years now: as you get older, the things you appreciate are not the things you do for yourself, but the things you do for and with family and real friends.

This year's first round was flawless: good driving, good irons, good hybrids (yes, the man's carrying two hybrids!), good putting. He made five birdies, including one at the first, and not a single bogey. He made putts right in his throw-up zone, four feet or so, on 17 and 18. On Friday, he stumbled badly on the front nine with five bogeys but showed he could still make some long putts, too, including a bomb on 18 to complete a gutsy rally and tie for the lead.

A reporter tried to compliment him on the short ones he made on Thursday. "I don't know if it was a good stroke, but it went in." Everybody, including Watson, laughed. True honesty is so refreshing, and so rare.

"So how am I going to do?" Watson asked, taking over for reporters. "Well, I don't know."

The man's going to play the shots and take responsibility for them, and answer all the questions when he's through.

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