Tom Watson's days at the British Open may be numbered

Tom Watson’s days at the British Open may be numbered

Watson played Muirfield during the 2007 Senior British Open.
Fred Vuich/SI

Some years ago, Tom Watson had a suggestion for Hootie Johnson, the chairman of Augusta National: cut back on the old players in the Masters, the past champions who came back year after year with no hope of making the cut, to make more spots available for the game’s rising talent.

Hootie made the move, which proved to be singularly unpopular. Arnold Palmer stopped playing because, he said, he was afraid he would get “a letter,” a club correspondence telling him his days in the field were over. The club reversed itself and Palmer and some of the old heroes came back, at least for a while. Palmer and Jack Nicklaus won’t play this year, but Gary Player will.

Now the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, keepers of the flame and administrators of the British Open, have picked up where Hootie left off. Past champions used to be automatically exempt through age 65. This week, an R&A spokesman confirmed a change; past champions will now be exempt through the age of 60. In the short term, the change really only affects one person: Tom Watson himself.

He turned 58 in September, and he’ll play in ’08 at Royal Birkdale, where he won the ’83 Open. He’ll play in ’09 at Turnberry, where he won the ’77 Open. And he’ll play his final open in 2010, at the Old Course, on a links he loves even if it never loved him back. He’ll be 60 then and one of the most respected players in the history of the Open championship. He’ll be done.

“I’m fine with the decision,” Watson said Wednesday night. “I think it’s a good thing, good for golf. Make room for the kids.”

That’s exactly the R&A’s position. “It’s one thing to be playing to make the cut, which maybe I could still do at that age,” Watson said. “But to shoot 12 under or 15 under and contend? An awful lot of things would have to come together.”

In the short term, the new rule won’t affect Johnny Miller or Bill Rogers, only because neither of them has played in an Open in years. In years to come, the change will mean an earlier farewell for Greg Norman and Sandy Lyle and David Duval. And of course Watson, unless he plays in an Open qualifier at age 61, or qualifies some other way.

“I don’t know, that’s something I might consider doing,” said Watson, who will likely continue to make a July trip to Great Britain to play in the British Senior Open. “If the qualifier were on a course like North Berwick, it might be a fun thing to do.”

About 30 years from now, you wonder what effect the age change would have on Tiger Woods. One guess is that he’ll still be among the top 50 players in the world, so even at 61 he’d qualify automatically.

“Look at Sam Snead at 60 — he could flat-out play,” Watson said. “Even at 65, he could still really play. He couldn’t putt, but he could play.”

And Tiger at that age?

“It’s pure speculation,” Watson said. “He might be a grandfather. He might have completely different interests.”

Watson at 60 or 61 is an easier guess: he would have to be one of the 200 best links golfers in the world, a particular form of golf well understood by him and not that many others. He plays golf by feel, and by inspiration. When the Open comes to St. Andrews in 2010, the bookies, legal in Scotland, will take bets for Watson to make the cut. For his many fans, that’s reason enough to keep at it, but it’s not enough for the R&A.