ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Tom Watson had long hinted that this 144th British Open, Watson’s 38th, would be his last. But he told the press Wednesday that next year’s Masters will also be his last hurrah at Augusta.
“The golf course is too big for me,” said Watson, 65.
He will still play the Champions Tour, and the Senior British Open, and although he has rarely indulged in regular European Tour events, he’ll play in the KLM Open in the Netherlands in September. Why? Because he was asked, and, “I’ve never been to Amsterdam, never been to Holland.”
Watson has always defied expectations, especially as they apply to his scores relative to his age. He almost won the claret jug for a record sixth time in 2009, when he was 59. Still, he said Wednesday, he’s not the same player he was then, having lost considerable distance in the last few years.
“I still want to compete,” he said. “I still want to hit that shot that really means something under the pressure. I just don’t think — I know that I may have a few left in me, but probably not enough to really make it right.”
Watson was somber and mostly stoic as he spoke to the press before his 38th and final Open start, barring a top-10 finish at the Old Course that could bring him back for as many as five more years. Even a question about Phil Mickelson and his comments at the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles last fall couldn’t throw Watson, the U.S. team’s much-maligned captain.
“Well, again, that was a disappointment to me,” Watson said. “Phil was very disappointed about not being able to play [Saturday]. It was kind of sour grapes. That’s understandable, and we just got waxed, the whole team, and the disappointment was just there. We let our hearts talk for us.”
And how are he and Mickelson now? “We’re cordial,” Watson said. “I saw him [Tuesday] night, we said hello, and yeah, we’re fine.”
Legends on farewell tours can melt before our eyes, none more so than Arnold Palmer at the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont, where the King cried on the 18th green and broke down in tears with the press afterward.
But predictably Watson kept everything bottled up Wednesday. For one thing, as he noted, he has already bid this place farewell, waving on the Swilcan Bridge as the cameras clicked in 2010. For another, Watson isn’t the touchy-feely type. As he settled in at the dais, before his microphone was turned on, he seemed eager to talk about anything but heartfelt goodbyes.
“How is everybody?” Watson said. “Ready for some wind? Gale-force winds? Looks like it’s going to be a week of some weather.”
He spoke of his initial dislike for links golf and coming around to like it above all else as he refined his links skills in casual rounds with friends like Sandy Tatum. He touched on the future of the professional game (bright) and the sport’s declining participation numbers (he’s concerned). He said his last Masters, in April, convinced him it was time to strop.
“Through smoke and mirrors I shot a 71 in the first round, 1 under par,” Watson said. “That’s the best round I had at the Masters in a few years, but then I shot an 81. And when you shoot 81, it’s time to say goodbye.”
Not until Watson got talking about the 2009 Open at Turnberry, when he bogeyed the last hole to drop into a four-hole playoff with Stewart Cink (which Cink won easily) did Watson’s eyes begin to water ever so slightly.
He spoke of the call he received afterward from Jack Nicklaus, who validated Watson’s decision-making on the final hole and even cracked a joke about Watson’s weak putt for par and the win after missing the green.
“He said, ‘You hit the putt like the rest of us would have hit it,’” Watson said. “That cracked me up, because he knew — it comes from the greatest player in the game. He knew how to console me, and I love him for it. That was a very — that helped in a moment of turmoil, sadness.”
Still, Watson said, he’s grateful for what this tournament has given him. “I’ve had more lucky bounces than I’ve had bad bounces,” he said.
Perhaps he’ll make the cut this week (for the 27th time), and with a few more good bounces he’ll stride up and over the Swilcan Bridge on Sunday with a chance for one more top-10 finish. It would be the 11th such finish of his long career, which started with a victory at Carnoustie in 1975. More importantly it would bring Tom Watson back again next year.
“Part of this walk in the next few days is going to be just the way I’ve always taken it,” he said. “I’m here to compete in the Open Championship. I’ve prepared right. I’ve prepared properly. I’m doing some things right. I’ve got a game plan. It’s not a ceremony at all.”
Watson will tee off with Ernie Els and Brandt Snedeker at 8:33 a.m. local time (3:33 ET) Thursday.