SOUTHPORT, England — For 36 holes, Tom Watson, the 58-year-old, five-time British Open champion, hit the ball every bit as well as another fiftysomething former Open champion, Greg Norman. Old Tom didn’t drive it nearly as long as Shark, but he was in play more than Norman, he hit better irons, he plotted his way around the course better. Norman is near the top of the leader board. Watson, at 10 over par, will spend the weekend in the ESPN booth. On the greens, greens that Watson conquered when he won his fifth and last British Open at Birkdale in ’83, Watson was — candor alert for people who can’t bear to read this next word — yippy. Norman made just about everything. Years ago, when Watson’s yipping looked to be in remission, he said, “Once a yipper, always a yipper.”
He was playing, as six o’clock was approaching on Thursday, pretty much to make the cut, and it was surprising, really, to see how much he cared. The man used to be a contender. He’s the bridge between Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. He’s a hall-of-famer’s hall-of-famer. And here he was, grinding at his usual up-tempo pace, just to qualify for the weekend. As young men, the great champs, your Arnolds, your Jacks, your Tommy Watsons, always said they would rather go to the dentist than play in tournaments they didn’t think they could win. Then 40 turns to 50, and 50 to 55, and they can’t give it up.
Watson would never say this, but the pace of his playing partners, Justin Rose and Aaron Baddeley, nice and respectful men though they are, had to be tormenting to him. Badds spends more time over the line of his missed putts than Watson would need to read and make three putts. He did say he thought they play better when they play faster.
On Thursday, in appalling wind and rain, Rose asked Watson if he had ever played in worse conditions. Watson loves questions like that.
“Yes,” he said.
“When?” Rose asked.
“Muirfield, 1980, first round.”
“What’d you shoot?”
Rose could be excused for not knowing, as he was born 10 days affer the tournament ended.
“Sixty-eight,” Watson said.
Watson will play next week at the senior British Open at Royal Troon, using the same putter he used this week at Birkdale. Why?
“Because it’s not the putter, it’s me,” he said.
Still, he’s been one known to change putters from time to time. At Olympia Fields, when the U.S. Open was played there in 2003 and the late, great Bruce Edwards was working his final national championship, Watson went back to the old battled-scarred Ping with which he’d had so much glory. The caddie asked his man how the putter felt and Watson said, “Like an old girlfriend.” He’ll be making no similar changes at Royal Troon. He came to the Kingdom with only one putter. It’s no thing of beauty and he’s not using it beautifully, but it’s all he’s got, unless he goes to a shop.
Next year, the Open goes to Turnberry, where in 1977 Watson won his greatest British Open, the Duel in the Sun against Nicklaus. In 2010, the Open goes to the Old Course in St. Andrews, where in ’84 Watson hit it against the wall on the 71st hole on the Road Hole while in contention, made bogey and Seve Ballesteros won. He never won another major. It marked the end of an era, really, not that we knew it then. The 2010 Open will be his farewell to Open golf. That’s why making the cut at Birkdale was so important to him. It all becomes more important when you know the end is near.
Watson’s not surprised to see a 53-year-old man leading. At least not that 53-year-old man. “Greg’s always been a great bad-weather player,” Watson said.
Plus, Watson noted, Norman’s got a level of happiness he hasn’t had in years.
“There’s kind of golden aura when you get remarried,” Watson said. “I know.”
He wrapped up the interview session and found his wife.