Watson's latest British Open movie, set again at Turnberry, turned into a reality show

Wednesday July 22nd, 2009
In his bid to become the oldest major champ, Watson (with Oxman on his bag) rediscovered the magic that helped him win five claret jugs—including a memorable one at Turnberry 32 years ago.
Robert Beck/SI

TROON, Scotland — I'll be going home soon, I promise, but in the meantime I can't shake this year's British Open at Turnberry from my head. Maybe the same is true for you. Surely the same is true for Tom Watson, the runner up.

Bobby Jones once said, "I could take out of my life everything except my experiences at St. Andrews, and I'd still have a rich, full life.'" Watson could say the same of Turnberry. At Turnberry he has experienced elation (his '77 Open win), frustration (his tie for 11th in the '94 Open, with a full-blown case of the yips), wistful happiness (his '04 victory in the British Senior Open, while the life and good times of his friend and caddie, Bruce Edwards, were being robbed by ALS) and heartbreak (his '09 Open loss in a playoff to Stewart Cink). Over the course of those 32 years, he had a daughter, a son, a divorce, a second marriage, a second chance. We watched the Open on Sunday at Turnberry, hoping to see a movie. What we got instead was real life. Talk about your Mongolian Reversals.

It couldn't have happened in a more beautiful place. The southwest coast of Scotland is like Hawaii, except for the warm, sunny, easy Polynesian weather and culture. Still, it's hilly, rugged, isolated, green and right on the sea. The various architects who have worked on the Turnberry links figured out something: you put the teeing areas as close as you can to the angry sea chop, not the greens. There's one inspiring tee shot after another, nearly all the way around. You could probably tell that even watching on TV.

The British Open is great TV. I remember in '77 waking up in my parents' house on Long Island, putting on ABC and watching the saga of Jack and Tom play out in weather that was every bit as hot as our own. I remember the spectators wearing no shirts. There was nothing like that this year. The days were windy and sunny and cool, and Watson wore a different sweater for four straight days. On Sunday, he had a game plan, he said on Saturday, for about the first time in his career. Nicklaus, Watson said on Saturday, always had a game plan, a score he was trying to get to. Watson was following the Nicklaus model for the first time.

Being at the Open is always a fantastic experience, but there's something to be said for watching at home, too, waking up, getting the paper and putting on, as they say here, the golf. On the West Coast, you can do this quite early in the morning, as Watson's hip surgeon, Dr. Joel Matta, discovered. Matta lives in Los Angeles and he's a 4-handicap golfer who plays at two fantastic clubs, Los Angeles Country Club, the traditional L.A. club for bankers and investment gurus, and Lakeside Country Club, an old-line Hollywood hangout where Bing Crosby and Bob Hope played hundreds of rounds of golf together.

I spoke to Matta by phone on Saturday. It was Saturday night for me at Turnberry and Saturday morning for him in Los Angeles. He had just watched Watson play this third round, courtesy of ABC, and now he was going to go out for a round of his own. Naturally, he was very pleased. He operated on Watson, who approaches medical issues as if he were a doctor himself, only last October. Now his patient was leading the British Open. Watching Watson on TV, Matta said, "I doubt if even a medical professional could tell you which hip was operated on."

It was his left, and you really couldn't tell: there was no sign of Watson favoring one side or the other. Still, he looked 59 to me. Watson used to tee up his ball and mark his ball with one foot on the ground and the other up in the air, the jaunty style preferred by young jocks everywhere. Now he practically kneels to do it. His neck is red and lined from so many years in the sun. You wouldn't say he's a youthful-looking 59-year-old, or I wouldn't, anyway. But he swings like one.

At the British Open, kids with adults are admitted for free, and you saw a good number of teenagers on the top of Turnberry's hillocks and dunes. Watching Watson, a parent could say to a child, "This is your father's Tom Watson." The swing was the same as forever, and so was the pose, and the inscrutable grin with which he responded to fortune, good and bad.

On the cold beach beside the course, there were horseback riders in lime-green windbreakers. Police officers on patrol, it turned out. In the sea beyond the beach, there was a mighty and powerful sloop in full sail. A promotional boat for Hugo Boss, it turned out. Nothing is ever quite as it seems, or as you wish, right? Welcome back to the real world.

So you were rooting for Watson at Turnberry, you and all those kids high atop a giant hill, Turnberry's highest point, a monument to the dead of war. The folks up there whistled and clapped and cheered for Watson as he passed, hopeful that he might look up. He never did.

In the end, Turnberry '09, the movie of Watson's life, left you wanting more, but you're probably not going to get it. The signs on the outskirts of the village say, "Haste ye back."

It's a nice thought, anyway.

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