ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — It rained sideways all day on Wednesday, to bone-chilling effect. If it weren’t for the roiling whitecaps, you wouldn’t have been able to tell where the gray sky ended and the gray sea began. Maybe it’s my imagination, but by mid-afternoon even the seagulls looked ticked off.
This is British Open weather. It’s Scottish weather. It’s Tom Watson weather.
Watson is a national treasure at 60, and he embodies links golf for many Americans. He has long been a superstar in the U.S., but in Scotland he is held in even higher regard. Winning five Open championships will do that for you, especially when you play the game the way it’s supposed to be played, you’re a sportsman and you look like you’re having fun.
His legacy here is every bit as lasting as those of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Perhaps no American golfer since Bobby Jones has been more identified with links golf, the Open and St. Andrews than Watson.
He and Palmer, in fact, were among those who received honorary degrees from St. Andrews University in a ceremonial dinner the other night.
Scotland and Watson have a longstanding love affair. There was the bittersweet moment last summer when Old Tom (no offense to Old Tom Morris, the original Old Tom) nearly won a sixth British Open at 59. He made all the right moves, even hitting a perfect 8-iron into the final hole that simply ran out two feet too far. That led to a bogey and a playoff loss to Stewart Cink. It was like Cinderella breaking the glass slipper before she could put it on.
Watson has had a year to wrestle with that unforgettable Turnberry Open, where heartbroken fans filed out of the stands with a funereal silence afterward. But it wasn’t a funeral, as Watson reminded everyone at his post-tournament press conference. In fact, the near miss remade Old Tom into Young Tom. He was suddenly relevant again.
“I hadn’t had any young kids come up to me for years,” Watson said, “and then it was always kids saying, ‘My grandmother loves you.’ But now kids came up and said, ‘Hey, Mr. Watson, that was great last year at the British Open.’ That’s been a wonderful sidelight to what happened last year.”
This is not to say that Watson has savored any kind of moral victory from that loss. He hates losing. Hates it. Yet he is wise enough, and experienced enough, to accept it.
“The loss is hard to take,” he admitted. “It tore my guts up. But my guts have been torn up before in this game.”
He mentioned the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 1974, when he lost the lead and the Open with a final-round 79. He mentioned the 1975 Open at Medinah, where he had the 36-hole lead and let it slip away. He knows it’s not about suffering a loss; it’s how you respond to it.
“Two weeks later in ’74, I won my first tournament, the Western Open,” Watson recalled. “Four weeks later in ’75, I won the Open championship at Carnoustie, so it’s kind of a bounce-back thing in me. Yes, there have been some wonderful memories over the years, and Turnberry was a memory in a positive sense, I guess, the way people responded to it. That’s what I’ve taken from it.”
He knows, too, that he has won tournaments he maybe shouldn’t have won. Watson brought up the ’82 British Open, where a young Nick Price faltered on the final nine and handed the title to him. A win is a win and a loss is a loss, but it’s not always that simple in golf.
“There’s a real satisfying way to win a tournament and there’s a less-than-satisfying way to win a tournament,” Watson said. “Turnberry was a satisfying way to win a tournament.”
He was referring to the Duel in the Sun, when he outplayed Nicklaus at the finish in the 1977 British Open. Both players seemed like winners there, just like last year at Turnberry. Cink could feel good about holing a clutch putt on the 72nd hole, a putt that turned out to be crucial, and then playing great golf in the playoff while Watson ran out of gas. It has been portrayed as Cink ruining a great story, but that isn’t fair to Cink or Watson.
“I understand the situation,” Cink said Wednesday afternoon, “but in no way has it taken anything off of what I felt last year. The joy of being the Open champion has been almost indescribable. But if you’re asking me if I feel sorry for Tom, no, I don’t feel sorry for him. He’s got five claret jug titles and I only have one.”
Cink and Watson arranged to play a practice round together earlier this week and posed for pictures on the bridge at the 18th hole. They didn’t discuss last year, but Watson did take note that the defending Open champion is on top of his game.
“He’s placing the ball where he should, he’s thinking the right way from a strategy standpoint and he may be flying in under the radar,” Watson said. “He’s playing well.”
Watson is unquestionably the game’s reigning elder statesman, at least among those elder statesmen still competing. That won’t be true forever, he admits. This may be his last Open at St. Andrews. Certainly, he said, he played his last U.S. Open at Pebble Beach last month. He doesn’t expect to compete when that Open returns to Pebble in 2019.
His secret to the Old Course is lag putting because the greens are huge, seven of them double greens, and the wind often dictates that you can’t shoot for the pins.
“Sometimes, a good shot is 30 feet to the side of a hole,” he said. “An average shot may be 50 to 60 feet away, and a bad shot is going to be 80 to 100 feet. So lag putting here is crucial.”
His secret to winning a major is handling the pressure, and he used last month’s Open at Pebble Beach as an example. “It was like a NASCAR race that had a wreck in the final lap,” he said. “There was smoke and oil and everything. It was a mess. All of a sudden, one car kind of winds its way through that and bingo, Graeme McDowell comes through as the winner. That’s that type of pressure that people are under in a major championship, and that’s what causes those wrecks. I’ve had those wrecks. This was no different.”
There is something about St. Andrews, a special place in golf, that makes it perfect for saying farewell. Palmer had two farewell appearances here. Nicklaus had one the last time the Open was here, in 2005, and was even honored by the Royal Bank of Scotland, which put his likeness on five-pound notes that are now collectors’ items.
Watson will be 65 in 2015, when the Open would return to the Old Course if the Royal & Ancient continues its trend of returning to St. Andrews every five years.
If he returns, he’ll come back as Dr. Watson thanks to the ceremony where he received an honorary doctorate of law. That was interesting because Watson’s grandfather and great-grandfather were attorneys. His father, Raymond, served in World War II instead.
“He was preparing to be an attorney but the war got in the way,” Watson said. “He said, ‘Son, that was the greatest thing that ever happened. First, I didn’t get killed. Second, I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I hated being a lawyer.'”
Watson laughed at his story, as did a roomful of writers. He joked that he was thoroughly undeserving of the degree, too, but added, “It was done in great spirit and I was honored and humbled to be part of it.”
All of Scotland and those who love golf feel the same about Old Tom.
When he left the media center, it was still rainy and windy and raw. It was perfect.