When the Tom Watson Revival Show blew into Dubai for a European Tour event earlier this year, its star continued to amaze, notching a convincing T-8 finish. On Sunday, a sly Tour official informed Watson that his top-10 finish had qualified him for the Masters — the Avantha Masters in New Delhi the following week. Watson laughed, adding, “I think I’m going to go west rather than east.” More remarkably, Watson has gone north instead of south. Since coming within an eight-footer of winning the Open at Turnberry last July, the 60-year-old has cruised against his peers while contending against players half his age, both in the Middle East and at the (actual) Masters in April. All of which makes Watson more than just a nice story at St. Andrews this month. It makes him a threat.
You electrified the golf world with your performance at Turnberry last year, but does it still hurt that you couldn’t close the deal?
It hurt for a short while but as I have always done with disappointments throughout my career I let it go. I have had plenty of good memories, too. My e-mail crashed during the tournament because I was getting so many messages. And afterward, so many people wrote to me and emailed. People were saying I had given them hope that they could still achieve things at an advanced age. And not just in golf, but in life, too. That was humbling.
You’ve always been a favorite with the British and Irish golf fans.
The feeling is mutual. I have always enjoyed the way people there love the game. It’s such a part of the fabric of life, especially for the Scots. Even if they don’t play golf, people understand it. Yeah, they pretty much adopted me. I love to wear those flat caps and tartan clothes over in the U.K. And it is refreshing to play a shot under tough conditions and hear people clap even though you just got the ball on the green. They understand that sometimes it is a wonderful shot just to get the ball 50 or 60 feet from the hole.
At your Sunday press conference at Turnberry last July, you broke the ice by saying, 'It’s not a funeral.'
Well, that was the whole point [smiles]. Still, losing tore at my gut. The Open was mine to win. I had it in the air at 18 and it was still mine to win. But, as links golf sometimes does, it can be the most beautiful game and the cruelest game in the same shot. I guess that’s what makes golf, especially links golf, the greatest game.
What were you thinking about when that approach shot was on its way to the 18th green?
When the ball was in the air, I was thinking about 1977. But this shot was even straighter. It came right down on the hole and I was licking my chops [smiles]. I heard the crowd cheering as it landed on the green. And then the groan as it ran off the back.
Were you surprised by how well you played?
No. I have played that course so many times and won there that I felt I had a kinda home-course advantage over most of the young guys who had never played Turnberry before. I knew I could play well tee to green but my putting was crap. Until Tuesday. Then a light switch clicked for a few magical rounds. Wish I could find that again [laughs]. On Tuesday it was easy. It was like the old days.
When you won in 1977, beating Jack Nicklaus, that was a defining moment in your career.
Looking back to 1977, it was the year that I deemed I had the ability to play with the best players in the world and to win the important tournaments to be considered a great player.
You had a lot of failures before you got to the top, rather like Padraig Harrington’s career.
It took me a while and a lot of golf balls to get to trust my golf swing so that I could truly believe in it, and to play enough tournaments to understand how to deal with the pressure of golf tournaments so that I could rely on my swing when the chips were down. The pressure is always there. And it changes, too. It’s like you’re floating in a stream and sometimes it is calm but sometimes the current gets very intense.
You’ve been critical of Tiger Woods’s behavior. What are you hoping to see from him now that he has returned to golf?
He needs to show more humility to the fans. He has not carried the same stature as the other great players. His behavior on the golf course doesn’t show the respect for the game that the players who came before him have shown. It may show respect to Tommy Bolt [infamous club thrower from the 1950s], but it doesn’t respect Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Nick Faldo. He needs to clean up his act. He doesn’t have to do the things he does to make our sport look bad.
As a former World No. 1 (1978-82), you too had to overcome bad times, including divorce and issues with alcohol. Do you have any sympathy for the spotlight that Tiger is under?
I understand. The most difficult thing is how much time is taken away from your life. There is so much pressure that it skews your balance. It happened to me and to a lot of players who reach the top. I got to a point where the key was to make yourself find time for the things that are important but a lot of the time you don’t do it. And that’s tough. It skews your time and then your life. It made me selfish. And it is hard not to be like that. You have to say “no” to a lot of people that maybe you should say “yes” to, but you don’t have the time to do it.
The attention you got was never comparable to the buzz around Tiger, though, was it?
I don’t understand the rock-star status Tiger has. I was never close to that. His dominance of golf catapulted him to a stratosphere I didn’t remotely reach. I wish him the best. He messed up. He knows he messed up. The world knows he messed up. And, you know, he has to take ownership of that.
As one of the game’s great shotmakers, do you believe science is killing the art of golf?
The game has changed significantly. We can make the ball go longer and straighter. The hybrids make it much easier to play the game. You can mis-hit drivers these days and they still get distance out of it. You certainly didn’t get that result with a persimmon club.
How would you improve the game?
If I were commissioner, this is what I would do: They have already reined in the grooves. I would also get rid of big broom handle putters. That’s not a stroke. I’d reduce the size of the driver from 460cc to 240cc. That gets the sweet spot a little smaller. You mis-hit it, it’s going to fall 20 or 30 yards short rather than four yards short. And then I would reduce the distance the ball goes by 10 percent.
Any chance of that happening?
No. One hundred percent chance of it not happening [laughs].
You’ve said that despite winning several Open titles, you didn’t like links golf until the early ’80s. What changed your mind?
One of the big turning points was in 1981 when Sandy Tatum [former president of the USGA] organized a trip to Ireland and Scotland. We played Ballybunion, and then flew over to Prestwick, Troon and Dornoch. A wonderful delight to play links golf properly and to see it in a positive light. I love it now but you can never truly understand it. You can’t be precise enough to know all the bounces. You can do that at Augusta. But I don’t care if you play St. Andrews a thousand times, you can’t come close to understanding it.
What was your first impression of St. Andrews?
I first played it at the Open in 1978 and I didn’t like it — you know, all those blind shots and the luck of the bounce. I was struggling with liking links golf. I was fighting it instead of accepting the way you had to play it. So I decided it’s better to join ’em than fight ’em.
Do you get on with the Old Course today?
I’ve grown to like it. It’s the most important course we play. But my favorite Open course is Muirfield. I like the way the holes move in different directions so the wind is always changing. At St. Andrews, you go out and you come back.
What are your thoughts on the Royal & Ancient making the Road Hole longer?
They needed to lengthen it. It will make me lay up even more [laughs]. There’s no question it’s one of the toughest holes ever. I’ve not played it too smart over the years, trying to knock the ball onto the green. Jack has always played up to the front of the green and tried to two-putt for par. There’s a reason why he’s won 18 major championships and two at St. Andrews [laughs].
You’ve come close to winning a couple of times at St. Andrews yourself.
I had a very good chance to win in 1978. But I shot 75 in the last round. And Jack won. And I had another chance in 1984. Bernhard Langer and I just couldn’t make any putts. I hit the road on 17 and as I was trying to make par, Seve [Ballesteros] made his birdie putt on 18 and kinda closed the door on me. That was a disappointment.
Can you win at St. Andrews this month?
Depends how I am playing going into the championship. My long putting has to be very good because you have so many 70-footers on the Old Course. You can’t afford to three-putt. When Tiger won there in 2000, he didn’t three-putt once. I have always struggled with the 2nd and 12th. You wouldn’t think that the short 12th would be so tough but it’s had my number over the years. And the 4th is the hole that I either play well or terribly. Can’t get it over the dune anymore. I may have to go over to No. 14 fairway and take a 3-wood at a bad angle into the green. But that’s St. Andrews for you [smiles].
During the Open do you get time to soak up the atmosphere and history of St. Andrews?
I do a little bit. And the older I get, the more I reminisce. I have been up to see Old Tom’s grave. I will maybe walk around the town a little more this year. But, as professionals, our first job is to learn the course. So we don’t always have time to get wrapped up in the history. Except that when you walk onto that tiny first tee, you’re aware that you’re in the place where just about every great player, professional and amateur, has stood and hit a tee shot. There’s no other place like it. This year would have been my last Open but thankfully I have five years left. Greg Norman and I helped change the rules thanks to my performance last year and Greg’s in 2008. I still remember how to play links golf.