SANDWICH, England — The first thing Tom Watson saw on television here Friday morning was an Open Championship highlight show that featured Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington talking between clips.
And the first clip Watson saw? Footage of 71-year-old Gene Sarazen holing a 5-iron shot for an ace on the famous Postage Stamp hole at Troon in 1973 .
A lucky thousand fans or so who were parked at Royal St. George’s par-3 sixth hole saw another bit of Open history Friday morning when Watson, 61, followed Sarazen’s example and knocked a 4-iron shot into the cup for a dramatic hole-in-one.
“Maybe that inspired me,” Watson said of the Sarazen video.
Maybe so. There is no question that Watson knows how to play links golf as well as any living man. Which explains why he used a 4-iron for a 160-yard shot into the wind. “The kids are hitting 6-irons,” he joked.
From the tee, Watson said he couldn’t see the ball go in. But it landed, took one big bounce and burrowed into the cup like an Olympic diver hitting his mark. The crowd cheered wildly and Watson put his arms out and said in surprise, “It’s a one!” Then he did some fist-bumps with the caddies and his playing partners, amateur Tom Lewis and Henrik Stenson.
In a post-round TV interview, Watson caught a glimpse of the replay. “It was a slam dunk,” he said with a big grin. “If it missed the flag, it would’ve gone 30 feet by. But it was lucky. They’re all lucky when the go in. But that’s what I was aiming at.”
The ace, which Watson followed by making birdie at the seventh, helped him shoot 33 on the front nine. He finished with an even-par 70 and a two-over, 142 total to make the cut.
It was the 15th ace of Watson’s life. Asked if he remembered them all, he laughed and answered, “No, I just remember the number.”
It was not his first major championship hole-in-one, he said. He aced the fourth hole at Baltusrol during the first round of the 1980 U.S. Open . “Maybe they’re bookends,” Watson said of his latest shot.
He also recalled a hole-in-one he made during the 1969 U.S. Amateur at Oakmont. Watson got off to a bad start and was four over par through the first seven holes. At the eighth, a monster then at 230 yards, he drilled a 3-iron shot into the cup. That turned his day around and he eventually shot 75. The U.S. Amateur was a stroke-play event then, and Watson finished fifth, which earned him an invite to the next year’s Masters and jump-started his career.
Of course, he still fondly remembers his first ace. He was 11 or 12, he said, and playing at Kansas City Country Club, his home course. He was playing by himself when he holed out at the second, a short par 3. He was so excited that when he finished the ninth hole, he rushed into the pro shop to tell someone.
“I’d read in Golf Digest, I think, that if you made a hole-in-one with a Dunlop ball and sent it in, they’d send you a plaque, a wooden No. 1 plaque,” Watson said. “The only guy in there was John Cosnotti, the assistant pro. I told him, John, I made a hole-in-one, I want to get that plaque.”
So Cosnotti dug up the ad, read it and told the young Watson there was a problem. He needed a witness, somebody who was there for the whole round.
“My elation went from here,” Watson said, holding his hand out high and then dropping it, “to here. Oh, man.”
Then Cosnotti walked over to the golf shop window and looked down the 400 or so yards to the second hole. “He said, ‘You know, Tom, I saw that go in,'” Watson said. “And he put his signature on my scorecard.”
Watson still has that hole-in-one plaque, and the No. 4 Dunlop ball he used still sits on it. He was asked what he did with the ball from this latest ace. “I gave it to my wife,” he said, smiling proudly.