In a little corner of Scotland, Tom Watson renewed his winning ways, taking advantage of his love for links golf to end an 18-month drought by capturing the Senior British Open in a playoff over Irishman Des Smyth at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club. It was Watson’s second Senior British Open title – he won at Turnberry two years ago – to go alongside five Claret Jugs from the Open Championship, four of which he landed in Scotland, where the people affectionately call him “Toom” and treat him as one of their own.
Watson at times looked like the Watson of old, hitting the ball hard and solid and low, beneath winds that occasionally howled above 30 mph. He took control Saturday with a course-record-tying, 7-under-par 64, then held on Sunday, staving off a strong final round turned in by Smyth. Both players finished 72 holes of regulation locked at 4-under 280.
A three-hole playoff ended at the par-3 17th hole when Watson two-putted for par from 15 feet and Smyth could not get up-and-down from a deep pot bunker. Afterward, Watson said he was surprised he wasn’t really pushed harder.
Greg Norman, making his debut on the senior circuit, birdied the final hole to shoot 68 and finish at 3-under 281, a shot out of the playoff. Craig Stadler, the 36-hole leader, closed with 72 and finished fourth.
“There was really no ‘run’ today,” said Watson. “And I was kind of expecting there would be a run. Des made an error there (in the playoff), and fortunately I’ve got the cup in my hands.”
As solid as he’d played a day earlier in what he termed his “best round of the year,” Watson made his share of mistakes in the finale. He incurred an early double bogey at No. 4, hitting a poor drive and eventually three-putting from 40 feet, and he missed several good birdie opportunities on his way home. A 3-footer slid by the cup at 15, and he missed birdie putts inside 20 feet at the final two holes of regulation.
On his first playoff hole, Watson had to make a 5-foot comebacker for par just to stay alive. (“My dad would have been shaking his head,” smiled Watson.) The playoff was settled at No. 17, where Watson knocked an 8-iron onto the green. Smyth chose the same club, but blocked it into a deep pot bunker right of the green, his ball finishing close to the steep face.
Said Smyth, “Maybe my concentration dipped a little. I just seemed to get ahead of it and put it in a tough position in the bunker. But anyway, Tom won and he’s a great champion. That’s nothing new.”
Watson, 55, arrived at the Balgownie Links at Royal Aberdeen fresh off four rounds at the British Open at St. Andrews, where he enjoyed a front-row seat as his good friend, Jack Nicklaus, waved farewell to competitive golf. For four days at the Old Course, Watson struck the ball well but got little out of it as his putting proved suspect. But the way he was hitting the ball left Watson encouraged as he moved north to Royal Aberdeen, a place he had visited in 1996.
The course had been altered, with significant changes to the 12th and 13th holes – the 12th was lengthened from a weak par 4 into a stout par 5 – and Watson remembered bits and pieces of advice members had offered. It was information that Watson, in hindsight, believes was invaluable.
“I remember playing in front of a crowd here in ’96,” Watson said in his acceptance speech, “and they started telling me, OK, at 18, and 2, and various holes out here, they told me how to play the golf course. And some of those things were remembered. And I don’t know why I remembered them, but that’s just the case.”
The first two rounds were difficult for the entire field. Northerly winds – uncharacteristic for Royal Aberdeen – gusted to 30 mph, and the players just tried to hang on. Nobody could match par in the opening round, with rookie Loren Roberts’ 72 standing as the day’s low score. By Day 2 the wind subsided a bit, but Watson could only muster a mediocre start of 75-71, and trailed Stadler by five.
What Watson hadn’t done for six consecutive rounds in Scotland was make any putts. That would change Saturday. He found his putting stroke, and not only did he begin converting birdie chances in a sterling 64, but he converted a five-shot deficit into a one-shot lead heading into Sunday.
“I knew I was playing pretty well,” he said, “it was just (a matter of) if I could just get something that works with the putter. So I just went to the putting green today and just said, ‘OK, I’m going to put my hands in one position and stick with it all day.’ ”
The result was his lowest round in a major championship since shooting 64 in the final round at Turnberry in 2003. “Lo and behold,” he said, “some putts went in the hole.”
Watson has won at almost every major links venue in Scotland. Royal Aberdeen was added to a list that includes Carnoustie, Turnberry, Muirfield and Royal Troon. His lone Open title in England came at Royal Birkdale (1983). Now Watson will turn his attention to his fourth major in as many weeks – the U.S. Senior Open at NCR Country Club in Dayton, Ohio.
“I learned quite a bit about my putting stroke yesterday and today,” he said. “And I found something that maybe will continue on with me. I hope that it works a little bit better for the rest of the year.”