One of the most deeply held beliefs in golf is that Tom Watson is the greatest links player the U.S. has ever produced. His case is based on his five British Open wins, which are more than any other American and a pretty convincing argument.
Those victories came in 1975, ’77, ’80, ’82 and ’83, but interspersed with the wins were some indifferent finishes. Starting in ’75, the year Watson first played in the Open Championship, through ’90, Tom’s average finish was a shade better than 20th (if we assign a finish of 71st for his two missed cuts).
That’s a pretty good 16-year run, but compare a similar span from Jack Nicklaus’s career, from 1962 to ’77. Jack averaged an astonishing fifth-place finish. Indeed, Jack’s best major in terms of average finish during this period was the British Open. Adding a few years doesn’t hurt his average either, as he won in ’78, tied for second in ’79 and tied for fourth in ’80. One of the most amazing achievements in golf is what Jack did in the Open from ’66 to ’80—he never finished outside the top 10 and only once finished outside the top five.
Then there’s Tiger Woods, who has played the Open 13 times as a pro. Like Jack, Tiger has won three British Opens, and his average finish is 16th, better than Watson’s. (But don’t expect him to improve this week: Royal Lytham is the only rota course he has played twice and not finished in the top 20.) Royal Lytham first held the Open in 1926, and it was won by Bobby Jones, who played the event only four times and won three claret jugs. So while there is no question that Tom Watson is a great links player, at least three guys from this country might be better. Still, it’s pretty good company to keep.