SUNNINGDALE, England – After the madness came the mildness. After a week of enduring the ultimate pressure in golf, Tom Watson turned up for 18 gentle holes in England’s green and pleasant land.
It was almost as if he’d turned up for a garden party and a golf tournament broke out.
Not much has changed at Sunningdale since the day in 1926 when Bobby Jones went ’round the Old Course in Open Championship qualifying in 66 strokes.
Understatement fits Sunningdale like a brand new pair of golf shoes.
Indeed, if there’s a course in England that comes closest to Augusta National, it’s Sunningdale. Like Augusta, a huge Oak Tree frames the old style clubhouse. Like Augusta, there is nothing corporate about Sunningdale. Golf is first and foremost.
No wonder Watson looked right at home on this heathland/parkland gem.
It didn’t take Watson long to settle into the Old Course. After three poor tee shots in the heartache playoff loss to Stewart Cink four days earlier, Watson couldn’t have asked for a better return to competitive golf.
The first on Sunningdale’s Old Course is a gentle 492-yard par 5 that plays the easiest on the course. Not surprisingly, Watson’s tee shot found the fairway. A mid-iron to the green and two putts later, the healing process had begun with a birdie.
While thousands cheered Watson’s every move at Turnberry, a crowd of just a few hundred started out with him when he teed off at 9:20 a.m. in the marquee group including Greg Norman and Sandy Lyle. Even by the time they reached the par-3 13th hole, the crowds were manageable more than manic. It didn’t get much above 500 people at the end.
This crowd was less vociferous, much more restrained. Watson had to endure cries of “Go Tom!” on nearly every tee, every fairway and every green at Turnberry. It took until the 12th hole here until a lone spectator broke ranks and cried out “Come on, Tom!”
The cry broke the subdued atmosphere and some in the gallery looked at the man as if he’d laughed during a church service.
Not that Watson minded the subdued atmosphere in any way. After the trials and tribulations of Turnberry, he was just happy to get back between the ropes again.
Asked if it was an ordeal to get back out playing, Watson said: “It wasn’t difficult at all. That’s what I’ve done all my life. It’s a different story this week so let’s get on with it.”
Getting on with it meant returning a 3-under-par 67 that puts him in contention for his fourth British Senior Open Championship. Watson achieved his score by doing what he did last week: he made sure he put the ball in play and then took his chances when they came up.
He played the best golf of the three ball. His driving was peerless, his iron play crisp. Indeed, he looked like a man who had won the Open Championship last week, not a man who’d been embarrassed in a playoff.
Watson had so many chances over the closing holes that he could have finished at 6 under and not 3 under. He missed makeable birdie putts at 13, 16, 17 and 18. He faced a similar length putt at the last to the one he missed in regulation on the 72nd at Turnberry. He made a better stroke this time, but the ball lipped out.
“I’m not very good on 8-footers at the moment.”
He could have been forgiven for thinking the golfing gods were against him, but the eight-time major winner has been around the game long enough to dismiss such romantic notions. He knows the only thing standing between him and victory this week is his own talent.
Besides, just as he said at Turnberry, Watson knows how lucky he is just to be playing this game for a living, especially compared to others in the world. Earlier in the week, he talked about the e-mail he’d received from U.S. serviceman Leroy Petry. Petry, a staff sergeant in the Army Rangers, is up for the Medal of Honor after saving the lives of comrades when he took a direct hit from a grenade in Afghanistan. That e-mail put Watson’s playoff loss in perspective.
Watson got another reality check just before the first round when he received bad news from home.
“It was kind of a sad day. I got a text this morning, a friend of mine died of brain cancer, just a couple of years older than I am, a friend back home. It puts it (losing the Open Championship) into the right light. So it was a good day, but kind of a sad day.”
Whether it turns into a good week remains to be seen. Watson will be gunning for the title, but odds are he won’t be too despondent if he misses out.
He’s just happy to back doing what he knows best, and fortunate to be doing it at subdued Sunningdale.