TURNBERRY, Scotland – Five-time British Open champion Tom Watson held court Wednesday at Turnberry and took us for a wonderful ride down the lane of fond memory. Golf, if not travel writers, would rate the journey five stars. Or, to use the golfing vernacular, five jugs – one for each of his five Claret versions.
Watson’s experience at the Open was success at first try but not love at first sight. He won his first Open, in 1975 at Carnoustie, after a girl living next to his rented house in Montifieth brought him heather in aluminum foil and said, “This is for good luck.”
“That’s the way it started,” he said of the affection he has received from Open fans. “And that’s the way it’s always been.”
But he had different feelings about the style of golf, even after he won his second Open in 1977 in the famous Duel in the Sun here, where his weekend 65-65 edged Jack Nicklaus by one. That went down as arguably the most electric showdown in the game’s history and told Watson that he could “play with the big boys.”
It wasn’t until two years later, though, that he fell in love with links golf, a game played on the ground as opposed to the air strikes in America.
“The luck of the bounce and the sideway bounces, I didn’t like that,” he admitted Wednesday. “I didn’t like it at all, even though I won two Opens before. I told myself at Royal Lytham in ’79, ‘You can’t fight this. If you’re going to fight this, you’re never going to truly be a great success out here at it.’ ”
The pep talk worked. He won in 1980 at Muirfield, in ’82 at Royal Troon and in ’83 at Royal Birkdale.
The victory at Muirfield was punctuated by a third-round 64 and marked by interesting developments behind the scenes–one the day before the tournament, the other the night of the final round.
On Wednesday, Watson completed what he thought would be his last practice round and felt great about his chances because he had holed putt after putt. He went into the library at the Greywalls hotel and was sipping a soft drink when Arnold Palmer, Jerry Pate and another player barged in. Pate was chirping, Palmer was fuming.
“Jerry had just won a bunch of money from Arnold,” Watson said. “And if you knew Arnold, he hated to get beat. I mean, he just hated it. Jerry was constantly sticking the needle in him and finally Arnold hit me on the arm and said, ‘Tommy, come on, let’s go out and take these clowns on for another nine holes.’ ”
It would not be the first or last time Arnold Palmer called for a rare, so-called emergency nine the day before a tournament. This time, Watson holed a 25-footer on the first hole and Pate missed from about 12 feet and the Palmer side “absolutely killed them after that,” Watson said. Palmer got his revenge, and Watson got his confidence boosted another notch.
“The real part of the story is that when I got off that green after playing 27 holes that day before the tournament, I knew that if I stayed out of the bunkers that I’d win the tournament because I was making everything (putting),” Watson said. “And it came to pass.”
The Muirfield secretary, Paddy Hamner, didn’t much care for the extra practice. But that wasn’t the last time that week Watson would raise Hamner’s eyebrows. After winning and celebrating in his room, Watson was walking to dinner in coat and tie when he ran into Ben Crenshaw. Crenshaw, golfer and historian, was carrying the golf equipment of the 1860s – a couple of hickory-shafted clubs and a few gutta percha golf balls.
“I’m going to go play 10 and 18,” Crenshaw said.
Watson couldn’t resist. He got a couple of steel-shafted clubs out of his bag and tagged along for a money match. As it happened, Crenshaw split a gutty ball hitting a shot on the first hole. And Crenshaw’s then-wife, Polly, walked along, “aerating the greens with her four-inch stilletto high heels.” Hamner didn’t like what he saw.
“I think the tournament is over,” he told the new champion and friends.
Watson laughs at the memory. Almost three decades later, the rap on the knuckles seems mild.
“God rest his soul, he took it with a good nick,” Watson said. “He did all right with it.”
No sport does nostalgia quite like golf. The game probably has too much of it, too much past and not enough present. Fans cling to the champions of yore. As Palmer once said, “I was No. 1 a few years and people still thought Hogan was on top.”
But it is a nice diversion when a legend from yesteryear lets down his guard, takes off the game face, turns the knob and let’s loose with tales from his glory. So it was with Watson on Wednesday in a country that is the home of golf, in a country that has adopted him, at a tournament he dominated over a nine-year period.
“Any professional golfer who doesn’t feel a kindred spirit here in Scotland probably doesn’t have an understanding of the game,” he said. “If you’re a professional golf, it’s the fabric of your life over here.”
There is but one slight issue. The language barrier. Just because two men speak English, that doesn’t mean the English is the same. To an American’s ears, the Scottish brogue can disguise words.
“I wish I could understand the language better,” Watson said. “I asked a guy on the course today twice to repeat himself. I couldn’t understand a word he said. And if that person is here, I apologize.”
Watson is 59, less than two months from age 60. He enough trophies and awards for 20 or more men. Some in his position could be jaded. But when he steps on the tee at an Open Championship, he still has goose-bump moments.
“It happened again today, just on the golf course, beautiful day, just playing a practice round,” the aging champion said. “I thought, ‘This is what it’s all about.’ I said on the tee, ‘I love my office.’ ”
He particularly loves Turnberry, where the 18th hole on the scorecoard has been renamed “Duel in the Sun.” Watson didn’t know of that change until after his final practice round. He took a look at the card and said, “That is cool.”
The 1977 Open at Turnberry – where he took down king Nicklaus, where he arrived – is one of his three favorite golf highlights. Another was the chip-in at 17 at Pebble Beach that vaulted him to victory over Nicklaus again at the 1982 U.S. Open. The third is much less ballyhooed: His springboard victory in the Kansas City Men’s Match Play when he was 14.
Watson has had but one Open top 10 since 1989. And he hasn’t played much golf since having surgery Oct. 2 to replace his left hip. But he did finish fourth at the Senior PGA Championship in late May. And he is allowed to dream, particularly at Turnberry, a course that he says allows him to play well because of experience.
“I still have a chance here,” he said, surprising his audience.
Given that 60 is the maximum age for Open participation, Watson’s farewell to the Open will come next year at St. Andrews. Expect pomp, circumstance, tears and Swilcan Bridge posing there. The only thing that would prolong his participation is if the golf fairy somehow arranges the unthinkable – a record-tying Open title this year or next.
“Now that,” Watson said, smiling and drawing laughs, “would be a story, wouldn’t it?”