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Auld friends: Tom Watson’s last walk at St. Andrews

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – When Michael Watson was a wee lad, there was no questioning to whom he belonged. As a youngster first learning the game in Kansas City, Mo., when he stood over a putt on the practice green to win a tournament, it never was to capture the U.S. Open, or the Masters.

“It was to win the Open Championship,” he said. He smiled. “Obviously, that was ingrained into me.”

His dad, after all, was Tom Watson – or “Toom,” as the locals call him through their thick Scottish brogues from the grandstands. Watson won Claret Jugs at five different British Open venues, and nearly added a sixth title just shy of his 60th birthday at Turnberry six years ago.

The Open would be the one tournament that would define Watson’s Hall of Fame career. And on Friday, the 65-year-old Watson made one last walk at the oldest championship in golf, on a historic course at the Home of Golf, waving farewell to the Open on a tough day in near darkness 40 years after he first turned up – and won – at Carnoustie in 1975.

“It’s been one heck of a run,” Watson said with melancholy.

His voice trailed off. “It’s been a really good run.”

Watson, winner of eight major championships, always has been a steely competitor, and though his final round in the British Open proved quite emotional, he was adamant that he would not shed a single tear. True to his word, he didn’t. He was determined to make this a walk of joy, and of great gratitude, and he savored the moment as he made his way up the famed 18th hole, first crossing over the historic Swilcan Bridge, then walking alone up the fairway as fans filled a narrow road called The Links that runs alongside and fronts the Tom Morris Golf Shop, conveying their own gratitude back to him.

As he soaked it all in, the scene brought another historical memory to Watson’s mind: The famous photo, and legendary tale, of Bobby Jones, his Calamity Jane putter held up in the air, as he was hoisted and celebrated by thousands of residents in the Auld Grey Toon shortly after he’d captured the British Amateur at the Old Course in 1930.

“When Bobby Jones had won the Grand Slam, he came back and played a friendly (match) here at the Old Course at St. Andrews,” said Watson, a devout student of the game. “I’m not putting myself in the same shoes as Bobby Jones, but walking up that 18th hole, as the legend goes, Bobby Jones was engulfed by thousands of people who had come out and heard he was on the golf course and watched him finish right there at the 18th hole.

“And when I was going up there just across the road (that crosses the fairway), I think I had an inkling of what Bobby Jones probably felt like when he walked up the 18th hole. There’s just so much joy in walking up that hole.”

Friday’s round was nothing like Watson wanted it to be. His goal was to have his British Open curtain fall on Sunday, not Friday, and maybe even earn his way back with a top 10. One day after a couple of errant swings on the way home led to three double bogeys, he struggled to make putts and missed the cut for only the 12th time in 38 starts after rounds of 76-80.

“This is the first time that I think the emotions got the better of him,” Michael Watson said. “I hadn’t seen that before. But you know what? That’s all right. … It was spectacular. The warmth and the receptions we received, especially over the last six or seven holes, was tremendous.”

Watson bogeyed his final five holes, which was something Tom Watson simply never did at this championship. He won four of his five Claret Jugs in Scotland – in 1975 (Carnoustie), ’77 (Turnberry), ’80 (Muirfield) and ’82 (Troon) – and added a fifth in England in 1983 at Royal Birkdale. He was always about excellence and grittiness at this tournament once he finally came to understand – and fell in love with – the quirky bounces and uncertain fate of links golf. That came about in 1981, when he and his old pal Sandy Tatum played a round in tranquil weather in northern Scotland at Royal Dornoch, then arranged two caddies and returned to play 18 more holes in pelting, sideways rains later in the afternoon.

Watson always was a man who could handle the elements. Friday he endured all of them in a span of hours. High winds, hard rains and even some rare Scottish sunshine.

Friday’s second round was delayed nearly three hours because of torrential rains that flooded parts of the course in the morning, and Watson didn’t hit his first tee shot until nearly 5 p.m. For a time, with the sky growing increasingly darker past 9 p.m., it appeared as if he’d have to return first thing on Saturday to complete his final round. On the 17th tee, he asked the two others in his threesome, Ernie Els and Brandt Snedeker, what they wanted to do. There was no debate. With fans still sticking around to root Watson home, they wanted to see Watson finish. Up ahead, the players rushed so that the green could clear for Watson. It was getting near 10 p.m., and the stage, one last time, was his.

“The clubhouse emptied and the pubs emptied, and it was right that we finished,” Els said. “To be honest, I’m trying to make the cut (he did, finishing at even par), I’m playing my (behind) off, but it was the right thing to do.

“This is the way to send off a champion, not at 6:30 in the morning. He’s a hero of mine and I hope I can be like that one day.”

Watson was off the front of the green in two, left his first putt short, missed a short putt for par, then tapped in. That’s how quickly one can tie a bow on 40 years at the Open. He embraced his son in a long hug. Off to the side of the green, behind the iconic Royal & Ancient clubhouse that provided the evening’s only light, a few players awaited Watson, including Matt Kuchar, Graeme McDowell and Tom Lehman.

“Next year I’ll be waking up a few minutes before the telecast comes on, and I’ll be watching it, not as intently, but I’ll be watching,” said Michael Watson, who is 32. “It’ll be fun. It’ll be sad a little bit, too, because my father won’t be there, but at the same time, there’s a new era of golf upon us.”

Tom Watson is a realist who really doesn’t mind stepping aside. It’s time, he said, just as next April will mark his final Masters. That big clock on the stone wall behind the clubhouse is no different than any other, and it stops for no one. On Friday, Watson followed two of his heroes, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, in making an Open at St. Andrews his final one.

“I hope … at the end of my career, if I could entertain the fans with great golf shots, that’s what I was out there to do,” Watson said. “I think I hit a few of them in my career here.”

He did. Watson took time to toast a few people so important to him that no longer are here – former caddies Alfie Fyles and Bruce Edwards, and his late coach, Stan Thirsk, among them – when he stood on the bridge at 18 and looked up into the dark sky above him. This had been one wonderful journey, and the memories ran through him as if he was watching a movie of his life.

“There are just so many things that are now right in front of me,” he said. “It’s all joy. It’s all joy.”

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