HOYLAKE, England – Tom Watson, a hard competitor for a long time, was waxing nostalgic about myriad topics. About emotional times playing with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in their last Open Championships at St. Andrews. About the best shot he hit in winning his five Open titles. About next year’s Open at St. Andrews, which he called the “Sistine Chapel of golf,” being his last.
“If I’m getting too sugary,” the five-time Open champion said at one point, “stop me.”
No one stopped him.
And in a matter of minutes he was talking about the emotional day when tears were running down his face on the 18th hole at St. Andrews. The year was 2010 and he was playing with Jack Nicklaus on Nicklaus’ last hole at an Open Championship.
“I was crying like a baby,” the 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup captain said here at Royal Liverpool, site of this week’s Open. “Off the tee, I started bawling.”
“Here’s the greatest player in the game (and) he’s finishing his career and he meant a great deal to me,” Watson said.
This was different because in competition Watson was a brawler, not a bawler. He says he hasn’t cried on a golf course before or since.
“I’m either pissed off or happy, one of the two,” he said candidly. “Tears don’t enter into that. But I did have a lot of emotion with Jack and Arnie.”
Watson was hardly surprised Nicklaus made birdie 3 on the Old Course closing hole. When Nicklaus’ long putt got within 10 feet of the hole, Watson said he thought, “He did it again.”
“He couldn’t have scripted it any better,” Watson said. “Jack Nicklaus has birdied the 18th hole more than any living professional golfer.”
Nicklaus, meanwhile, has some words of wisdom for Watson on the green. He told him to “stop crying” and make a putt and make the cut. He did.
Watson, 64, might not be a sentimental sap, but next year figures to test his tear ducts. The R&A extended his exemption to 2015 so he could finish his Open career at St. Andrews. He’s thankful and mindful of what emotion is coming.
“I just hope I can hold back enough of the tears to look presentable,” he said.
Like many, Watson didn’t like the Old Course and its blind shots at first, then grew to love it. He said he’d like to go out playing there with Nicklaus, though he knows that’s not happening.
“He meant a great deal to me,” he said of the Golden Bear.
When Watson joined the PGA Tour in the early 1970s, he asked several veteran players the same question: What one thing is going to help me? The answer was always the same: Watch and play with the best players.
So he did. He paid close attention to one particular blond-haired player who would end up with 18 major championship titles. In fact, one year on Hilton Head Island, Watson was off on a Sunday and followed Nicklaus for 18 holes – in the gallery outside the ropes.
What did he learn from Nicklaus over the years? That the Golden Bear was the best at hitting the “proper shot at the proper time.” That he minimized mistakes. That he out-prepared the competition. That he didn’t go long on approach shots after losing an Open by overshooting a green.
“I don’t know if you ever saw the movie Top Gun (with) Maverick and the Ice Man,” Watson said. “The Ice Man never makes a mistake. That’s Jack, the Ice Man.”
Watson touched on a number of other topics during a lengthy interview. Among other things:
• He’ll pick Tiger Woods for the Ryder Cup team if Woods is playing well and is healthy.
• After playing Gleneagles on Saturday with Keegan Bradley and Sunday with Jim Furyk, he said the Ryder course definitely favors long, high-ball hitters. He foresees a lot of birdies and a “shootout” and “fireworks” if the weather is decent.
• The best shot ever hit at an Open was a 2-iron shot to within 15 feet on the 72nd hole in winning in 1983 at Royal Birkdale.
• And he’s not sure how he’s going to fare this week, saying, “My game sometimes shows up. But don’t ask me if it’s going to show up on Thursday or not. I don’t know. At 64 years old, it makes up it’s own mind. It really does.