In person, Tom Watson looks older than his 64 years. The raw, weathered face. The rounded shoulders. You can't help but think, How did this man nearly cash a check for a major win at an age when he should have been cashing in his IRA? As painful as his 72nd-hole bogey was to watch that year, the memories from that 2009 Open at Turnberry no longer trouble Watson. In fact, he fondly remembers a special phone call he received in the aftermath from his friend and old rival, Jack Nicklaus. That wild ride didn't break Watson. Not even close.
This year, he's tweeting (at 64!) while monitoring the play of Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson and the rest of Team USA in anticipation of his Ryder Cup captaincy in September. When discussing the subject, Watson suddenly seems younger. He gets fired up like someone half his age.
Watson welcomed us into his photo-and-trophy filled Kansas City office to discuss winning, losing and the challenges of skippering a Ryder Cup team. There were awkward silences. When an eight-time major winner doesn't want to answer a question, he's not answering the question. Like a cherished swing key, there are just some secrets that a golfer prefers to keep.
It's been five years since you almost became the oldest major champion ever. If the British Open were at Turnberry this year, could you win?
Probably not, in the condition my game is in. I'm losing some distance. Even my putting that week wasn't any good until Tuesday, when I changed it. And it worked for 71 holes.
What change did you make?
I rotated my shoulders and started hitting my putts more solidly. Nothing with grip or stance. More of a rotation, so the club fanned open and then shut in the stroke. I did it out of frustration.
Was Tuesday when you first realized you might be able to contend?
Wednesday was the day, because I confirmed it. I played a practice round on Tuesday, and the putting really worked well. But then it worked the day after, and I really knew I had something. Wednesday night I told my wife, Hilary, right before I went to sleep, "I can win this thing."
You had a one-stroke lead heading to the 72nd hole and needed a par to win a sixth Claret Jug. How often do you think about that final hole?
Only when you guys bring it up. But it's all right. It's part of the deal. It's part of what I am.
If we gave you a mulligan on that last hole in regulation, would you want to redo the approach shot, the chip or that 8-foot putt?
The chip shot. I would have chipped it rather than putted it. It was a 50-50 choice. The speed was the biggest factor on the par putt, and I just goosed it too much. I'd have a little bit better chance of chipping the ball closer, but I'd also have a bigger chance of flubbing it because the ball was sitting down. I'd leave myself with a 15-footer rather than, at worst with a putt, a 10-footer.
Does that decision still eat at you?
It was the biggest question I had. In his phone call, Jack [Nicklaus] said, "You played the right shot." That was such a kind comment from somebody who really knows the game. He said, "You gave yourself the best percentages." That relieved some of the anguish I was feeling at the time. We're friends, but to have him call almost immediately afterward—he knew how I was feeling. He's felt that way, probably because of me chipping the ball in on him [at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 1982] or making that putt at Turnberry on the 15th hole [at the 1977 British Open].
What else did Jack say during that call?
He tried, in his own Nicklausian way, to say that I actually won the tournament. I said, "Jack, I didn't win the tournament." He said, "You beat everybody in the field." I said, "No, I tied one, and I lost in a playoff." He said, "No, you won. You beat everybody in the field." That logic didn't get through to me. I lost. It was an extremely painful loss. But I try to live in reality. I got there, which is the important thing, and I had the opportunity, and I didn't make the best of my opportunity. The game can be brutal at times, and it was brutal in that moment. Winning would have made one hell of a story.
Your approach shot bounced over the green on the 18th. Would you still hit that 8-iron?
Under the circumstances, it was the right shot. It got a pretty good extra gust of wind, and it hit on the downslope. There's just a little, tiny downslope on the left front of the green. It's not even from me to your face, and then it levels out. [ESPN commentator] Andy North was there, and he said it hit right on that downslope. So, you know, that's the game.
You were almost 60 at the time. Is a fiftysomething going to win a major soon?
You've got Vijay in his 50s. Davis Love is 50. Freddie's had some good opportunities at the Masters. So, yes. It's not even in the realm of improbable. I think there will be someone who wins a major in their 50s. In your 50s you still have all your faculties. You really do. The way these guys train, there's no reason why someone in their 50s can't win.
Where do you get your competitive drive?
I go back to my competitiveness with my older brother, Ridge—and competing in the neighborhood, all the games we used to play. I was trying to be the fastest runner until I got waxed by Whitney Neal in the fourth grade. It was a down-the-playground-and-back race. Regretfully, she's passed, but she was a sweetheart. That deflated my ego a bit [laughs].
And she toughened you up.
That's right. One other thing was, I got cut from a Midget B baseball club when I was nine. I played baseball when I was eight, and now there was no baseball for the summer. So I started playing a lot of golf. Fortunately, I had a place where I could go play—Kansas City Country Club. I played by myself or with other kids. It was a luxury. But that event changed the direction of my life.
How will you know when it's time to stop playing?
That's a good question. I'm losing distance now. When the course start getting too long for approach shots, I'll have to try some different smoke and mirrors to get it done.
Let's say there was a Ryder Cup between the 12 best senior players and the 12 best from the PGA Tour. Would the old-timers have a chance?
Nah, we have no shot. We may hit it straighter, but on a 7,000-yard course, we've got no shot.
What if this Young Guns vs. Old Guard match happened on a shorter Scottish course?
You can always make the case that a particular course is going to negate the length for the kids, but when it's all said and done, they're thoroughbreds, and we're quarter horses.
You're skippering the American Ryder Cup team in September, for the second time. What are your strengths and weaknesses as a captain?
My strengths are that I've been there before [in 1993] and have the experience. And I have an absolute desire to do everything possible to set the stage for them to win. Weaknesses? I don't know. Maybe compassion. I have passion, but maybe compassion is something [I lack]. I expect these players to go out and take care of business. I fully think that the reason they'll want to win is because we lost the 2012 Ryder Cup.
Back to the topic of compassion. If you have a hot player in a morning session who asks to sit out the afternoon, will that not fly?
No, that's not it. I'm not accepting of whiners.
Is a player saying he's too tired to play a form of whining?
I don't put it in that context. It's more about letting the little things bother you. I don't have time for that. Insignificant things, people who aren't focused on what they're trying to do.
Fred Couples wrote in one of your instruction books that he considers you one of golf's best strategists. Will you strategize with your Ryder Cup players?
That's up to the players and their caddies. I won't tell them what to do out there. They have to do what they think is right in that moment. I'm there to assist them by providing for their physical needs and, at times, their mental needs. We'll see how that comes up. I don't have a game plan for that, but that's where my experience comes in because I've been there before.
Have you thought about what you're going to say to the guys on Saturday night if you're behind, tied, or ahead?
Care to offer a preview?