SANDWICH, England — Tom Watson is Hemingway’s stubborn Old Man. The links is the Sea. The claret jug is the marlin. Watson simply refuses to give up chasing it.
He got stranded in the teeth of the storm that ripped through Royal St. George’s from mid-morning to mid-afternoon of the third round on Saturday. Carnage reigned on the links. Paul Casey got blown away with a 78 and 1999 champion Paul Lawrie drowned in an 81.
But Watson took everything that the Kent clouds could chuck at him. He refused to yield. He shot a two-over-par 72 at a time, he said, when par was more like 77. If he’d had a later tee time when the big bright yellow thing re-appeared in the sky, Watson might have been one of the leaders.
After his round, Watson looked like he had just driven through a car wash and forgotten to roll up the windows. Soggy Sandwich, anyone?
“You just love to see us pros suffer, don’t you?” Watson said with a laugh. Just how bad was it out there? “It can tear you up and spit you out,” he said. Not Watson, it didn’t. Not this time. “I enjoyed that,” he said, sounding like the Marquis de Sade after a particularly demanding party. “It was fun. There were some great escapes out there.”
He said his putter saved him. “I just had that feel for some odd reason,” Watson said. “I hope it continues tomorrow. Now I know why I won all those Opens before. That putter was always pretty good back then, too.”
This wasn’t even the worst storm Watson had endured during his Open campaigns. That dubious honor goes to Muirfield in 1980. He shot 68. Watson sure knows how to scramble his way around a links in a hooley — that’s English for wind, not a Harley for pensioners. Watson is 61 and the oldest player to make the cut in Open history. He beat a 59-year-old T. Watson who made the cut at Turnberry in 2009. But Watson doesn’t just aim at making cuts. Hell, two years ago he was one putt away from starring in The Greatest Sporting Story Ever Told.
The fire still burns in his belly. Watson really believes he can tie Harry Vardon and win a sixth Open championship before he retires. When he awoke Saturday to see the sideways rain and a fellow with a beard building an ark on the beach (it wasn’t Lucas Glover), he must have secretly smiled.
“I’ll never tell,” he said, grinning. “I kind of like that challenge when it’s nasty out there. ‘Dastardly,’ as Peter Alliss calls it.”
Watson doesn’t hail from the University of Bish, Bash, Bosh that so many modern players seem to have graduated from. He’s from the Old College of Tickle, Tweak and Coax. He handed out a free lesson in the dark arts of links golf to his playing partner, 30-year-old Ricky Barnes from California. The 495-yard fourth was playing straight into the howling wind. Watson was so far back after his tee shot that he chose to caress a driver off the fairway, sending it scudding off toward its target. He saved par. Genius.
Under such impossible conditions, did Watson think the R&A could have made the fourth hole into a par five? “It doesn’t matter,” Watson said. “Call it a par three if you like. Players will be coming off saying, ‘Ah I got a five, a double bogey.'”
The lesson was that par doesn’t matter. The only number that counts is yours against the field.
Lesson two for the young generation: you don’t have to smack the logo off the ball.
“The kids hit it so far past me,” Watson said. “You see a lot of them trying to hit low hard stingers. I can’t hit it hard. I’m 61! But it also takes some guile, luck and wits.”
So take THAT, witless whackers. You know who you are. Maybe Dustin Johnson has been paying attention in class. One of the biggest bashers on the PGA Tour is just one off the lead held by Darren Clarke at five under par. He’s clearly doing more than just driving for show.
Physically, Watson knows he is fighting above his weight class against Johnson and Rickie Fowler (two under par) and the new generation of gym-junkie golf athletes. But mentally, he knows he can still beat them. “Let’s do without the rain and have some wind,” Watson said. “And see what happens.”
The look in his eyes revealed he still believes he can win. But Watson is four over par and nine shots adrift of Clarke.
Hemingway’s Old Man didn’t know when he was beaten, either.