SOUTHPORT, England – The more things change at the Open Championship, the more things stay the same. At least for Tom Watson. Twenty-five years ago Watson secured the last of his five Open victories with a majestic 2-iron from 213 yards on the final hole at Royal Birkdale. This year that 18th hole will measure 473 yards, a driver/short iron combination for most players in the field. But not for Watson, who turns 59 this summer.
"It’s still going to be in my driver and 2-iron range, I can assure you that," he says.
The 137th Open Championship marks the beginning of the end of Watson’s Open odyssey. While legends like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player all played their farewells here at the age of 65, Watson is to be sent packing much earlier after the Royal & Ancient reduced the maximum age at which past champions can play. The decision means that instead of having the option to play through the 2015 Open, Watson’s swan song will come in 2010.
"I commend that decision," he says. "There are places that you have to have for the players that can really play. I know that."
His final three appearances will come at auspicious venues: two where he has won, and the third at the scene of perhaps his greatest disappointment. Next year the Open is at Turnberry on Scotland’s Ayrshire coast, the site of Watson’s epic "Duel in the Sun" win over Nicklaus in 1977. In 2010 the Open returns to St. Andrews, where he stumbled down the stretch to finish second to Seve Ballesteros in 1984.
A quarter-century after holding off Hale Irwin and Andy Bean to win at Birkdale, Watson has little time for misty-eyed sentiments about his chances this week. "Nothing will make you feel young again, especially seeing kids out there playing who weren’t even born when you won the championship here," he says. "But that’s the beauty of the game. You can still play late in your competitive life."
One of those kids is Brandt Snedeker, who was born in 1980, the year Watson claimed his third Open title. This afternoon the veteran is taking Snedeker for a practice round at Birkdale, hoping to pass on a little of the wisdom he has accumulated since making his (winning) debut at Carnoustie in 1975, just as past legends like Byron Nelson and Ken Venturi schooled him decades ago. "He’s got a lot of talent. He’s got his head screwed on right," Watson says. "We’ll see. He’s young."
Watson has made the cut in his last three Open appearances, unlike his record at Augusta National, where short-hitting veterans are an endangered species. "The way they’ve designed that course has taken me out of the loop there," he says. "I’d have to be more than perfect to compete there, and then I still can’t compete. But here, on some of these [links] courses, I can still compete."
If that doesn’t sound like a man ready to amble into the sunset, remember that there’s a big difference between competing and winning. Watson doesn’t believe he has a chance of the latter. Not at his age. "I live in the now and not in the past or in the future," he says. "It’s wonderful to have some good memories. I can’t remember half of them, that’s the problem."
(Photo: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images)