Tom Watson accepted the fickle nature of links golf at British Open

Tom Watson accepted the fickle nature of links golf at British Open

Watson lifts his hat to the crowd and the course.
Robert Beck/SI

TROON, Scotland — Greetings from the Marine Hotel, overlooking the Royal Troon Golf Club. Yes, I have a great job. I stayed here for the British Open at the suggestion of my friend Neil Oxman, Tom Watson’s caddie. We were both on the second floor.

Neil’s room was opposite the Tom Watson Suite. Watson won his second-to-last major, the 1982 British Open, at Troon. Watson and his wife, Hilary, stayed at the Turnberry Hotel, above the golf course, in the Tom Watson Suite there. I guess he has suites named for him all over the place, and you likely know he won at Turnberry, in a shootout with Jack Nicklaus, in 1977. Watson’s a god here. Five British Opens. Three Senior British Opens. This week he’ll go for his fourth, at Sunningdale, outside London, with Neil on the bag.

Watson has had other chances to get his sixth Open title, which would have tied him with Harry Vardon, who has the most. You remember Vardon. He was a character in the movie about Francis Ouimet. He played in a vest and invented the grip that you and I and Tom Watson use today (but not Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods, who interlock). Watson, most famously, could have reached six at Turnberry this year, at age 59. He needed a par on the last, a hole now called (this is hokey) Duel in the Sun, but he made a bogey that led to a playoff. You know what happened there.

In ’94, at the Open at Turnberry won by Nick Price, Watson finished tied for 11th, attributing his loss to a full-blown case of the yips. In ’84, at St. Andrews, Watson made a bogey on the Road Hole on Sunday and Seve Ballesteros, oozing charisma and Mediterranean passion, won by a shot. What would it have meant to Watson to win at the Old Course, as Jack did, as Sam Snead did, as Bobby Jones did? The world. You could say he never recovered from that loss, but that would be melodramatic. Still, the fact remains that the ’83 Open at Birkdale was his eighth and — for now — final major win.

Next year, the Open returns to St. Andrews and Watson will be 60. The way things stand, that will be his swan song, unless the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews changes its mandatory retirement policy, or unless Watson finds some other way to qualify for future Opens. If it turns out to be the place he makes his exit, he’ll probably be OK with that. Say goodbye at the Home of Golf, as Tiger Woods (who has won there twice) always calls it. That’s what Jack and Arnold and Lee Trevino all did. Watson loves Trevino, as a shotmaker and a person.

I grew up on Watson and I’ve caddied in groups with him on a few occasions, and I’ve been writing about him and interviewing him for years. I feel like I hardly know him. I think that’s how he wants it. He lets his clubs do the talking. He’s always been that way.

It’s getting near 6 p.m. here on Monday and in the long Scottish night I’ll have no trouble getting in a round of evening golf. The sun rises early here, too. I finished writing the Tom Watson-Stewart Cink game story for the magazine about 12 hours ago, in the press tent at Turnberry, about 25 miles south of here, longer if you go on the coast road. When I left Turnberry, the sun was coming up and the security men shook my hand as I made my way out, the last typist, as if we had been through something together, and of course we had. No disrespect to Stewart Cink, a nice man and a nice golfer, but everybody was rooting for Watson. We all want to be a little part of history, and see the outer limits of life expanded. One of the security guards had 100 pounds down on Watson to win, at 10 to 1. He wanted the giant payday, and he wanted Watson to win.

I’ve heard a few mentions of how Watson “overclubbed” on the 72nd hole, when his 8-iron went over the green. I’m sure I will sound like a Watson and Co. apologist when I say this, but that’s utter nonsense. Watson flushed a downwind 8-iron that landed on the very front part of the green with the hole in the back. His ball took a giant bounce, bigger than normal, looked like it would stop on the back of green, took a slope and rolled a few inches into fluffy grass. It’s links golf, folks. That’s what happens in links golf, the ball takes funny bounces. Watson is one of the greatest links golfers of all time but he understands that as well as anybody, and he accepts it. Scottish golf in the wind on a firm course is not American golf in the dead calm on a damp course where you hit certain clubs precise distances.

I walked a few holes on Sunday with Tom Lehman, a former Open champion himself. On the ninth tee, Watson ripped a driver that was rolling, rolling, rolling right at a bunker. Anybody who likes to talk to his golf ball — Lehman, Woods, me, maybe you — would have been shouting some variant of “Whoa, golf ball, whoa — stop, stop, stop!” Watson just stood there, as always, the club angled in front of his face, and stared the thing down silently. I asked Lehman how a man could suffer in silence like that. Lehman said, “That’s why he’s such a great Open player. He accepts that the ball is going to go where it’s going to go. He’s going to hit it, accept it, chase it, hit it again.” Somebody should put Lehman on TV, but I suspect he’d rather play.

So the ball went over the green. Now people are questioning why he putted from the fluff instead of chipping the shot or pitching the shot up the hill and into the wind and back to the hole. The reason it looks now like a bad play is because it didn’t work out. (I know: duh?) But really, that’s the thing. Hitting delicate chips takes more control of your nervous system than hitting lag putts. Watson, hyper-realist, knows that. A bad putt is better than a bad chip.

Years ago, I asked Tiger why he would sometimes chip with his 3-wood. He said, “Sometimes when you’re nervous you hit the ground before you hit the ball. With the big sole plate on the 3-wood, if you hit the ground first the club bounces up and you can still make pretty good contact.” This, from the best player in the world. Watson had his reasons for using the putter. On 17, he went over the green by about a foot and played the exact same shot he did on 18, a chip with a putter from a fluffy lie. He hit it to about four feet and made the putt for birdie.

Open golf is filled with vagaries. On Sunday, on the 12th hole, in a cross-hook breeze that should have been a simple bread-and-butter shot for him, Watson hit a horrible pull that started left and sailed left in the wind and might have finished in the hay, except that it hit a woman, Nicola McBride, of Donegal, Ireland, on her bare arm, not hurting her. The ball dropped benignly to a perfect lie in the rough. She seemed happy to have helped the cause, however inadvertently. Her father, Emoes, has seen, live and in person, each of Watson’s five Open wins. He’s a Watson guy. Anyway, the Nicola bounce may have been the difference between Watson getting and not getting into a playoff. That and a thousand other things.

We never saw Watson’s bare arms last week, covered by a jumper all week long. He has massive arms, so thick and heavy they help him keep his simple swing right on plane. Watson’s old friend Sandy Tatum, the former USGA president, likes to say, “Watson has a swing that will not quit.” Watson has those muscular hands and knobby knuckles, as Hogan did, and those drumstick arms.

His best asset, of course, is his head. He’ll outplay you and he’ll outthink you, too. That doesn’t mean he’s going to get his name on the claret jug a sixth time. Anyway, he’ll have one more crack at it for real, and a thousand more in his dreams.