GULLANE, Scotland — Nick Faldo played his third shot from a bunker about 30 yards short of the green on the par-4 home hole. At that point, all he was trying to do was break 80. The Muirfield bunkers are true traps, and Faldo played this shot with the only club that would get him both out of the pit and near the hole, a nine-iron. He nearly holed it. "Even Tom acknowledged that one," Faldo said later, after signing for a 79.
Those five words spoke volumes. Tom Watson is not meant for these times, where parents say "good job" to their children for the simple act of playing on a swing. Watson's not much for chit-chat, false praise or mindless banter. He's a man playing a man's game, and he's 63 and he conserves energy.
His run of golf, throughout the kingdom and in Scotland most particularly, is astounding. He won the first Open in which he played, in 1975 at Carnoustie. 1975! After an opening 75 at Muirfield, he'll be playing on Friday to try to make the cut, and not happy about it. In his mind, he's not playing tournament golf to make cuts.
He'll most likely play in the 2014 Open at Royal Liverpool. He'll return to Scotland in September of next year, as captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team, overseeing a group of players who really don't know his life and unique times. In 2015, he'll play at St. Andrews, and that will most likely be his last Open.
He's playing these first two rounds with Faldo, a former Ryder Cup captain, and Fred Couples, back as Presidents Cup captain again this year. Friendly team competitions did not come up in conversation during the Thursday round. Faldo and Watson talked a little about shooting and tornadoes, but that's about it. Watson doesn't do small talk. He once asked Davis Love III for a putting tip, Love told him something and Watson replied, "That's wrong."
Hilary Watson followed her husband on Thursday, when coastal Scotland felt like Las Vegas. (Well, not really. You can't compare Pyramid Lake with the Firth of Forth.) I asked her how often his British Open golf, as a conversation subject, comes up at home. "Never," she said. "Almost never."
He has his horses, his children and grandchildren, his farm, baseball (Royals), politics (conservative) and varied other interests that occupy his time.
Then, 20 or so times a year, he slips on those familiar Polo duds, puts that Adams strap over his shoulder and heads out the door as Tom Watson, golf legend. As a man gets older, the obsessive loves of youth fade into something else, a thing that you can turn on and off, and thereby stay fresh.
He and Hilary and their close friends, Sue and Andy North, are staying at the Marine Hotel, up the road in North Berwick. North will be an assistant captain for Watson at the Ryder Cup, and the two men could not be more different. Maybe that's why they've been such close friends for 40 years now. Watson is a man for whom everything is black and white, while North sees nothing but gray.
North is approachable and chatty in ways that Watson is not. When Watson announced North as his deputy, North received congratulatory calls from the Jim (Bones) MacKay and Joe LaCava. Those two veteran caddies know how it works: For a team to be successful, the boss must be able to talk to the players. And if he can't, he must have a deputy who can. Jeff Sluman played that role, expertly, on Presidents Cups teams under Jack Nicklaus. North will do the same.
The nature of fandom has changed over the 38 years Watson has been playing British Open golf. Scotland is a small country and there have been intimate, unlikely relationships between certain American golfers and the Scots over the years, most particularly with Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Nicklaus and Watson. But where fans once wanted to hear stories, they now want to know facts. Knowledgeable fans used to ask Watson, "Whatever happened to Jack Newton?" referring to the Australian whom Watson defeated in a playoff at Carnoustie in '75. Today the questions have more of a just-the-facts quality: What iron did you hit into 18 at Turnberry in '09, when you closed with a bogey when a par would have won it? With his Polo duds on, Watson is happy to answer.
It was some threesome in the first round — Watson with his five Opens, Faldo with his three, Couples with his one (senior division). The caddies have all moved on: LaCava (Fred) to Tiger Woods; Fanny Sunesson (Sir Nick) to retirement, Bruce Edwards (T. Watson) to the Great Beyond. The caddie Watson won his five Opens with, Alfie Fyles, is the same.
When Faldo came in from his round, he talked about one of his favorite subjects, Rory McIlroy, and how McIlroy has a window now — no wife, no children, no business obligations — where he can focus completely on golf. Maybe's that not in his nature. It wasn't in Fred's nature. It was in Faldo's. Watson was that way, in spades.
One of the delights of this Open has been to see the Golf Channel replays of Watson's victory here in 1980. The win was sublime. What happened afterward tells you all you need to know about Watson. After the presentation ceremony, Watson and North and Ben Crenshaw and other players and some of the wives played a few holes with gutta percha balls and hickory-shafted clubs. They were yanked off the course by the club secretary. Why were they out there? Love of golf, and of each other. Can you imagine that happening today?