Tom Watson, 59 years young, captivated the golf world for four days at British Open

Tom Watson, 59 years young, captivated the golf world for four days at British Open

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

This is what it’s all about: losing. Really. You’re going to win some and lose more. That was the point of last week’s British Open at Turnberry. Everyone paid more attention to the loser than the winner, right? The loser, an old man — nearly 60! — lost with class and heart and serenity and tired legs. He tried to turn back time. It was a gallant effort, and he almost pulled it off.

True, somebody won on Sunday. Somebody always wins, and the newest name on the claret jug belongs to 36-year-old Stewart Cink, a native son of Huntsville, Ala., with a half-million tweeps following his Twitter page and a long, elegant, Georgia Tech-honed swing.

His shaved head covered by a Kermit-green hat, and wearing bright white pants out of a Marine Corps recruiting ad, he played a wild final nine holes, with only two pars but a closing birdie that got him a spot in a playoff with Tom Watson, a 59-year-old Hall of Famer with an artificial left hip, five British Open titles and an honorary guest bed in a million Scottish homes. In the four-hole playoff Cink overwhelmed the wee mon, two under to four over. Congratulations, Mr. Cink. You won your first major. Maybe you’ll win others. You’re a bright, considerate man with serious talent. You earned it.

In victory Cink thanked his caddie, his swing coach, his junior-golf teacher, his wife, his two boys, his Savior. He gave a heartfelt shout-out to Watson too. Cink most likely couldn’t remember Watson in his early prime. Little Stewie was four when Watson won his epic Duel in the Sun at Turnberry in 1977 over Jack Nicklaus. But the new winner is well familiar with the Watson legend: the handful of Opens, the two green jackets from Augusta, the U.S. Open he stole from Nicklaus in ’82 at Pebble Beach, the winning Ryder Cup captaincy in ’93.

On Sunday at Turnberry, the Duel in the Wind was at first about the promise of sporting history, and later about defeat. There was something gorgeous and sad and exhilarating about Watson’s play and finish, with his wife, Hilary, his grown kids, Meg and Michael, and close friends watching in person or on TV. Watson had one cast left, and he had the fish hooked but could not reel it in. The old man and the seaside links.

Oh, he’ll win Senior events, and maybe he’ll even contend next year when the Open returns to St. Andrews, although he’s already saying he won’t, not if the wind blows out of the west. He says he can’t play the course in that wind. He’s a hyperrealist.

When it was over, a hundred or more reporters gathered solemnly in a white tent and listened to Watson open the session by saying, “This ain’t a funeral, you know?” He laughed, and everybody else did with him.

Still. All Watson needed was a par on the last to become, by 11 years, the oldest winner of one of golf’s four major championships. If he had shot 277 instead of 278, he would have won his ninth major and tied Harry Vardon, a mustachioed Englishman born in 1870, with a record six British Open titles. In the Age of Tiger, how can a largely retired golfer, seven weeks short of 60, grow his legend? Watson did. He said, “One of the things I want out of life is for my peers to say, ‘That Watson, he was a hell of a golfer.'” His peers have been saying that for decades. From here on out, they’ll be saying it even more.

Tiger Woods likes to say “second sucks,” and he acts as if he means it. When Steve Williams, Tiger’s caddie, implored Woods to hit a provisional ball after a horrid way-right shot off the 10th tee last Friday, Tiger kept walking and muttered, “F— it,” before finally making a U-turn.

Thirty-two years earlier, when Watson nipped Nicklaus at Turnberry, the two walked off the final green arm-in-arm, the winner and the loser. Golf never looked better. When Sunday’s playoff was over, Watson kept grace alive. There was his long handshake with Cink, which came only after Watson allowed the champ time to acknowledge the applause and savor the moment. There was his fifth straight session in the press tent, where, his voice hoarse after a long day in the wind and the sun, he offered no excuses. Not his age, not his man-made hip, not his infrequent play. Of his poor putt out of fluffy rough from behind the 72nd green, he said, “I gunned it.” Of his ensuing 10-footer for par that would have won him the title, he said, “Made a lousy putt.” Asked if he ran out of gas in the playoff, he replied, “It looked like it, didn’t it?” Congratulations, Tom. You’re what it’s all about.

He’s the same as he ever was, or better.

This will sound crazy, but it’s true: His metronomic swing, always a joy to behold, has never looked this good. It goes up, it goes down, it goes through. Boom-boom-boom. A study in efficiency. (You cannot say the same of his close-range putting stroke. It is short and stubby and nothing like his circa-1977 action, which makes his runner-up finish last week even more extraordinary.)

As a man, Watson has never been more appealing, which is not to suggest there’s something easy and endearing about him, because there’s not and never has been. He’s wound tight and he can be painfully brusque. He once asked Davis Love III for a putting lesson, and Love gave him his best stuff, to which Watson responded, “That’s wrong.” Watson will, at times, show no patience for reporters with questions or kids with programs to sign or tournament officials who can’t give him rain-delay information quickly enough. After his first marriage ended in divorce in 1998, there was a long period when his relationships with his daughter and son were strained. Over the years, there have been dinners where he drank too much, angering his friends and family and worrying them too.

If real life were a VH1 special, we could cite a date when Watson’s life changed and the road to last week began. But life of course is messy, and all we can offer are some recent milestones. He married Hilary Watson, former wife of golfer Denis Watson, in September 1999. He won the Senior British Open at Turnberry on July 27, 2003, spending a happy and wistful week with his wife and their great friends Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, while keeping tabs on his longtime caddie, Bruce Edwards, who was battling ALS at home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Edwards, 49, died on April 8, 2004. (Watson has been raising money for ALS research ever since.) He stopped drinking several years ago on a date known to him and not many others. His relationship with both kids, Meg especially, has improved steadily over the past half-dozen years. He got a new hip last Oct. 2. He missed the cut at the Masters on April 10 by a dozen shots. (He says, not happily, that he’s a “ceremonial” golfer on the lengthened Augusta National course.)

Then came last week, when he led the 138th British Open after the second and third rounds and seized the outright lead one last time at the 17th on Sunday. He smoked his tee shot on the par-4 18th and clipped a downwind eight-iron from 187 yards that landed short of the hole, took a big bounce and went over the green. Three shots from there and the playoff was on. Watson was spent. His opponent was not.

Watson traipsed up and down Turnberry’s dunes without a limp. As he managed his way around the course, a stunning links designed by God and some lesser-known architects, he was the picture of contentment, even as the wind whipped about. Watson, as well as anybody, could move his ball through it. In interviews, he kept talking in different ways about his serenity, and you could see his comfort all week long. He played a practice round with Charles Howell and Brandt Snedeker and told them old Tour stories, the likes of which they had never heard. Last Saturday night, Watson passed his close friend Andy North, the longtime ESPN golf commentator and, at 6′ 4″, the tallest winner of the U.S. Open, punched him on the hip, looked up and gave him a grin that seemed to say, Can you believe this?

After the playoff was over, and while waiting for the prize ceremony to begin, Watson stood beside his golf bag and stared at his clubs, lost in thought, his wife’s arm firmly around his waist, both of them so still and focused and centered you knew they knew: You lose more than you win. The fight was over, and Watson was accepting the outcome, even as he thought about what could have been.

In real life Watson is more fun than he sounds here. He has a nice sense of humor. Asked how his old friend Sandy Tatum, the 89-year-old former USGA president, was handling his run at the title, Watson said, “It’s giving him a heart attack!” He has lived in the Kansas City area all his life, and spurred on by his friend George Brett, he used to own a small piece of the Royals. He goes with friends to baseball games often. He hunts regularly, sometimes with Michael. He designs courses. He devours the news and argues politics, often taking Rush Limbaugh’s side of things when debating his caddie, Neil Oxman, a well-known Democratic political strategist.

But, like Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus before him, Watson has become a sentimentalist. Oxman is on the bag because he was a friend of Edwards’s; it was Oxman who first encouraged Edwards to ask Watson for work, way back in 1973. As Watson stood on the 18th fairway on Saturday, he said to Oxman, “Bruce is with us today.” After his opening round on Thursday, in which he shot 65 — the same score he put up in his last two rounds in the ’77 Open — he said he was inspired by a text message he had received from Barbara Nicklaus. She wished him good luck, and it opened a floodgate of Turnberry memories: his triumph over Jack in the Duel in the Sun; his 11th-place finish in the ’94 Open, won by Nick Price, after which Tom and his first wife, Linda, and Jack and Barbara commiserated over dinner and a couple of bottles of wine; his Senior British win in 2003, with Oxman caddying and nightly dinners with Hilary and the Nicklauses.

That victory, he said at the time, meant as much as any of his others, because he was winning for “somebody other than myself” — Edwards, his wife, his kids. On those VH1 specials, everybody seems to talk like that. For Watson, it’s about as easy as pulling his own tooth, but at least you know he means it.

On Sunday night he spoke affectionately of the Scottish galleries, who have been cheering him on for 34 years now, since he won his first Open at Carnoustie, on the country’s east coast, in 1975. They stood for him as he came up the 18th the first time on Sunday, when victory was in reach, and they stood for him the second time, when the promise of victory was extinguished. “That warmth makes you feel human,” Watson said. Outside, it was cool and windy, but the green hillsides and white chimneys of the Turnberry Hotel were bathed in yellow by the late evening sun. “It makes you feel so good.”

The Watsons were staying in the Tom Watson Suite at the hotel, but this time the Nicklauses were not around. They were at home in Florida, just as Woods was by Sunday, after missing the cut (by a shot) for the second time in a major since he turned pro in late 1996. Some of Watson’s contemporaries were at Turnberry, but only as commentators: North, Isao Aoki, Bernard Gallacher, Sam Torrance. Tom Lehman, the 1996 British Open winner, 91/2 years younger than Watson, finished his Sunday round and followed Watson all the way around on foot, hoping to see history. The two of them, along with CBS announcer David Feherty and swing coach Butch Harmon, made a goodwill visit to U.S. troops in Iraq in 2007. Watson listened as Lehman, a fellow Ryder Cup captain, chatted with a veteran suffering from severe depression. Afterward, Watson said to Lehman, “That was impressive, the way you talked to that man.” Lehman was stunned. It was the most personal thing Watson had ever said to him. People change.

Golf games do too. Watson’s game, he acknowledges, is aided by a titanium driver and hybrid iron-woods and graphite shafts and today’s ball that goes straighter in the wind. Seven weeks shy of 60, he played Turnberry in rounds of 65, 70, 71 and 72. Two-seventy-eight, two under par. Nobody shot a lower score.

A day before the claret jug was hoisted by the new champion, Barbara Nicklaus sent a text to Hilary Watson. The first part of the message was golfer’s wife to golfer’s wife. The second part was golfing icon to golfing icon: “Jack says to tell Tom he still knows how to win.”

Maybe that’s why Watson looked serene as he stared at his clubs on Sunday night. Jack had it right. The man does still know how to win. Sure, he lost a four-hole playoff. But he won everything else.