LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – When Tom Watson missed a putt from inside three feet for par at the 17th hole Friday at Royal Lytham, slipping to 4 over at the 141st Open Championship, his heart told him that his gaffe probably cost him any chance of making the cut. And that’s a big deal to him.
And then he hit a nice little 8-iron into the par-4 18th and rolled in a 25-foot putt for birdie, and the raucous crowd roar that enveloped the green and that boyish gap-tooled smile Watson returned to the British fans told a new story: The 62-year-old Watson, playing in his 35th Open Championship, with rounds of 71-72, had a chance to stick around for two more days. When a couple of players faltered behind him, he was in.
“I hate to miss the cut,” said Watson, the steely competitiveness of a five-time Open champion clearly evident. “I mean, I still feel as if I can play certain courses, and this course is a little long for me, but I’m glad to have put myself in position to still be there for the last two rounds on the weekend.”
He’d made only four birdies over two days, but the last one would mean a great deal. Just by making it into the weekend at Lytham, Watson accomplished something such modern-day standouts as Phil Mickelson, Charl Schwartzel, Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer and Sergio Garcia did not.
Truth is, Watson did it playing on a painful hip and despite having to hit more drivers than most other competitors in the field, trying to dodge the minefield of bunkers. And he made the cut despite not driving the golf ball very well on Friday.
“I drove it terrible today,” Watson said.
Open champions over here are able to compete in the championship through the age of 65, which means Watson, if healthy, would have three more starts, taking him through St. Andrews in 2015. Watson captured four of his five Open titles in Scotland, where they affectionately call him “Toom,” yet his English fans generously shower Watson with platitudes and warm welcomes for all he’s done and accomplished in the oldest major in the game.
“The feeling is very mutual,” Watson said. “I have a wonderful, wonderful feeling about the way the game of golf is perceived, played and understood over here. It’s really, really special for me.”
It would be easy for him to simply be a ceremonial golfer, tipping his cap as polite applause greets him on every tee and green. He wouldn’t need to worry so much about any bogeys that came his way. But that’s where the fiery competitor within Watson emerges. His good pal Jack Nicklaus has given him a few words of advice on handling the situation.
“Jack always said he didn’t want to be a ceremonial‑type golfer,” Watson said. “That’s the reason he retired in 2005. He could still play, but the secret is that he misses it. But he understands the capabilities. His body won’t let him play like that anymore. And I’m the same way. If my body doesn’t allow me to play, and play on a competitive level, I won’t be there.”
But alas, Watson can play quite well, and he will be there on the weekend, playing four rounds at the Open for the 25th time. Three years ago, at Turnberry, nearing his 60th birthday, Watson had a chance to win the championship on the 72nd hole, but his 9-foot putt for par failed to drop. Watson would lose in a playoff to Stewart Cink. Cink was deserving, yet Watson’s run at 59 was a story for the ages in sports, and when he lost, it was an ending few were ready to accept. It shattered hearts everywhere.
Late this Sunday, Watson will return to Turnberry for the first time since that incredible Sunday, and will compete in the Senior Open Championship. He cannot wait to get to Scotland. The first thing that strikes him when he thinks of Turnberry is its overall beauty. He recalled a sunset on the eve of the 2009 Open that he termed “the most gorgeous thing – it was orange-red for an hour and a half. Absolutely spectacular.”
And as for his emotional return to the links there?
“There’s a lot of comfort and some disappointment,” Watson said. “I’ve had two nice wins (the Open in 1977, the Senior Open in 2003) and an almost-win.”
Back at Lytham, it was past 8 p.m., and with 83 players having made the cut, Watson was told he’d be teeing off early on Saturday. He already knew that.
“Oh, really?” he countered playfully. He appeared to be a pretty satisfied man. “Well I wake up early. So it doesn’t matter.”