In His Element

In His Element

Watson, who won the third of his eight British titles at Muirfield in 1980, survived a double bogey on the 72nd hole.
Fred Vuich/SI

The three-iron that Tom Watson hit from Muirfield’s 17th fairway last Saturday evening won’t make his list of career shots; it came up 15 yards short of the green. But the sun was at his back, throwing golden rays from its perch above the Firth of Forth, and the sky ahead roiled with dark clouds from a furious squall that had passed over the course. Watson held his follow-through and watched the flight of his shot with absorption, as he always does. He then lowered the club and turned to his caddie, Neil Oxman, saying, “Didn’t my ball look beautiful against that dark sky?”

It was a purely aesthetic judgment. Watson, more than any other golf star of his time, has the gift of detachment, an almost out-of-body awareness of the landscape, the sky, the people following him and his place in history. It was hardly surprising, then, that Watson, who is 57, won his third Senior British Open on Sunday the Watson way. The scoreboard said he won by shooting even-par 284 over a wind-raked Muirfield links, which was a stroke better than Stewart Ginn and Mark O’Meara could do. But Watson’s tight-lipped smile, which rarely left his face, said he won because he couldn’t lose.

Attitude counts for a lot in links golf, where nature and man often conspire against the player. The East Lothian wind was relentless last week, blowing the creases off trouser legs and making flags pop like small-arms fire. The Muirfield rough was a nightmare—waist-high in places and so thick that three-time British Open champ Gary Player nearly demanded that it be tested for drugs. “It surprises me,” said Player, “that they have made the Senior Open so much tougher than the regular Open. It sends the wrong message.”

Muirfield was so tough in Friday’s belt-loosening wind that first-round co-leader Nick Job, who started at three under, shot an 85 and missed the cut. On Saturday, when the gale blew straight off the Firth, only 16 of 77 players managed to par the 449-yard 1st hole, and the last two threesomes were collectively nine over par before they reached the 2nd tee. “The situation of only one semi-cut is stupid and over the top,” said Job, referring to Muirfield’s mowing scheme of short rough that abruptly ends at knee-deep hay. “It’s too demanding, really. The fairways are narrow in the best of times.”

Watson, after a second-round 71, had a different take: “I loved it out there. It was just a great day on the golf course.”

But that was a five-time British Open champion speaking. And even Watson admitted that he had not always cherished the linksland. “When I first came over here,” he said on Saturday, “I tried to fight the wind and the general conditions. But that didn’t work.” So the young Watson decided to give in. “Not surrender, mind you, but to go with it, to use the wind. Once I did that, my links game improved.”

Watson’s example was not lost on his peers, who tried to emulate his carefully distilled fatalism. In one of last week’s subplots, the Drogheda man, Des Smyth, made Irish eyes smile by taking the second-round lead at two-under 140. Smyth was trying to follow in the week-old footsteps of British Open champ Padraig Harrington, whose smile still lit Ireland five days after his triumphant return to Dublin. (Smyth, who made a run at glory when the British Open was played at Muirfield in 2002, retreated in Saturday’s gale and tied for 10th.) Eduardo Romero raised similar hopes among Argentine golf fans, who were still giddy over the exported heroics of U.S. Open winner Angel Cabrera and British Open contender Andres Romero (who was busy last week winning the Deutsche Bank on the European tour). Eduardo, who lost last year’s British Senior to Loren Roberts in a playoff at Turnberry, fell short again at Muirfield, going 73-74 on the weekend to tie for fourth.

But it was television’s Nick Faldo, making his Champions tour debut, who commanded the most attention. The Englishman turned 50 on July 18, and he showed up at Muirfield with a rusty game and a calculated flippancy, saying, “I am just going to tag along.” But Faldo, who won two of his three British Open titles at Muirfield, carries fond memories of the 1987 Open, at which he made 18 final-round pars to edge Paul Azinger, and the ’92 Open, at which he birdied two of the last four holes to overtake John Cook. It was Muirfield ’92, in fact, where the previously stoic Faldo unmasked himself with a giddy gallop through a trophy ceremony that featured a crying jag, a croaky rendition of Frank Sinatra’s My Way and Faldo’s classic thanking of the tabloid press “from the bottom of my—well, from my bottom, maybe.” These days, ironically, he spends 44 weeks a year sitting on his bottom for CBS and Golf Channel. “I can go on memories,” Faldo said after a practice round last week, “but I’ve still got to hit the golf ball.”

So no one was more surprised than Faldo when he went out on Thursday morning and shot 68, good for a quarter share of the first-round lead. “You have to walk yourself through it rather than it being automatic,” he said afterward, hinting that age and infrequent practice have made his otherwise fit body a less dependable machine. “You can’t simply stand up and swing.”

In all other respects, time seemed to have delivered Faldo to Muirfield in a stretch limo. He looked even taller and straighter than he did while winning three Masters titles between 1989 and ’96. His hair was movie-star thick, his smile movie-star broad. He emoted more than he used to, waving his putter in frustration when a putt veered left or right, squatting in the fairway and staring at the ground after a disobedient approach shot. He has developed the skill set of the celebrity golfer, and it’s safe to say that there was no more charismatic player at Muirfield.

Muirfield’s rough, unfortunately, is no red carpet. The long grass grabbed Faldo’s drives repeatedly over the next three rounds, and he looked noticeably tired when he finished play on Sunday at 292, in 14th place. “Boy, does he grind,” Watson said of Faldo after playing with him for the first two rounds. “He takes three practice swings, and he’s trying everything possible to play the best possible shot.”

Watson grinds, too, but he’s less deliberate than Faldo, and there were times last week when he hit key shots almost heedlessly. Weighing on his mind—lurking, perhaps, behind the cloud formations that fascinated him so—was the memory of his final-round collapse in last month’s U.S. Senior Open in Haven, Wis., where Watson shot 43 on the final nine to hand the tournament to Brad Bryant. Asked at Muirfield if he wanted to erase that memory, Watson nodded and said, “I hate failure. I need to get even.”

To do that, he first had to catch Ginn, the third-round leader. Ginn, whose wirerimmed spectacles and long, frizzy hair make him look like a hippie candlemaker, is an Australian-born pro who lives in Malaysia. Before Muirfield, he had done nothing much in 2007—he was 121st on the Champions money list—but he is a former winner of the Ford Senior Players Championship, which the senior tour treats as a major. “I haven’t done stoutly well on links,” he conceded on Saturday, “but I guess as you get older, you understand it a little bit more.”

On Sunday, Ginn learned that some things surpasseth all understanding. Watson caught up with a birdie on the 3rd hole, and as sun followed rain and the wind came up again, he pulled out to a four-shot lead over Ginn, Romero and O’Meara, another former British Open champ. Watson was two under and still three strokes to the good when he drove into a steep-faced fairway bunker on the par-4 18th (Big Play, page G18). That made it interesting, because it took Watson two shots to escape the pit, and his fourth, from the fairway, bounced a few paces to the right of the green. No matter. Using his big-headed putter, Watson rolled his ball down to tap-in range. When neither O’Meara nor Ginn scared the hole with their long birdie attempts, Watson bumped it in for his 49th career win.

Through it all, the wind and sky kept performing their wonderful tricks. While waiting on the 16th tee, Watson’s threesome had watched a spectacular rainbow fan out from horizon to horizon, the brightest segment flowing right down to the Muirfield clubhouse. “You notice those things when you’re older,” Watson said after the trophy ceremony. “You’re not so focused on birdies and bogeys and all that stuff.”

His smile said another nine holes wasn’t out of the question.