SO IT really was déjà vu all over again. Tom Watson played the last of several thousand shots at the Open in the dusk of a Friday night in St Andrews. But unlike in 2010, this time there is no going back.
Due to the morning deluge that anticipated the tears that fell later, it was always going to be tight whether Watson would be allowed to finish his final round on the same day he started it.
But with R&A officials, fellow players past and present and lastly – and, you suspect, most importantly for the man in question – local golf enthusiasts forming a ring around the 18th hole, Watson was applauded back home in a scene he so richly deserved.
The clock on a clubhouse lit up by light as night began to consume an eventful day showed six minutes to 10 o’clock. Watson had been due to tee off nearly nine hours earlier at 1:34pm. However, he saw this time pushed back to 4:48pm because of the foul conditions.
With rounds taking around five hours, when sunset was due to fall became another factor for those keen to see Watson given an appropriately rousing send-off. The sun was officially due to set at 9:47pm.
If the great man and his playing partners Ernie Els and Brandt Snedeker took as long as most groups, there was a danger Watson could be halfway across the Swilcan Bridge when the klaxon sounded to signal the end of play.
Which was not The End we had in mind for him. Certainly not if it involved coming back again at shortly after dawn today to see Watson finish off the final hole in his storied Open career in front of an audience made up of a few greenkeepers, some gulls and precious few others.
Because after 38 Opens, five wins – actually since we are between friends, let’s make it six in recognition of the win-that-should-have-been at Turnberry six years ago – and 129 rounds, this really is it. He carded a final round of 80, including a string of five consecutive bogeys at the end, to end 12 over par for the tournament. But who cares about such details?
Watson seemed to have made a pact with himself to savour every moment, rightly so. He stood on the first tee alone, soaking in the scenes. Even had the photographers grouped to his right been allowed to bark instructions, they couldn’t have asked for a more wistful pose.
At every tee, he scanned the faces behind the ropes. It was as if he wanted to remember every person good enough to want to see this through with him.
But while there might have been a beatific smile almost permanently fixed to his features as he stepped out for one last round of Open golf, there was the same old Watson determination to avoid lapsing into ceremonial mode.
But of course, there were times when he had to recognise the significance of the occasion, such as when he shook hands with the official starter Ivor Robson for one last time on the first tee. Watson suddenly appeared as if from nowhere to surprise Robson and hand him the gift of a flag.
There was an extra poignancy here because Robson, who is also saying farewell, made his debut at Carnoustie in 1975, when Watson rocked up in Scotland for the first time and lifted his maiden Claret Jug. They have gone through this journey together. And so, too, has a significant person sadly missing yesterday. Bruce Edwards, who carried the bag for Watson at all his Open title wins, died at the age of only 49 11 years ago. He, too, was featuring prominently in the golfer’s thoughts – Watson saluted the skies on the Swilcan Bridge as he crossed it a final time last night.
It was always going to be difficult for Watson to avoid the emotion of the day wrecking his core responsibility, which was card a decent score and maybe, just maybe, propel himself back into the mix for cut.
Adored though he is by almost everyone except Phil Mickelson, this might have prompted sportswriters charged with compiling obituaries for his Open career in the media tent across the way to curse his name. No-one wanted to see him fail. But the image of Watson striding up the 18th for one last time on the Friday evening as the shadows fell was how most envisaged the curtain would fall – and so it proved.
Nevertheless, a bogey on the first hole, which made it five over par for the tournament, was not the start he or anyone else in the packed galleries wanted.
“Scotland and Kansas City love Tom!” claimed one banner, which provided name-checks for both his birthplace and adopted home.
Of course, he is loved in most other places too. But in Scotland he can count on a special relationship that borders almost on the spiritual.
As he made his way up the second fairway, he was saluted by those by now well-refreshed onlookers in the garden of the Old Course hotel. “Tom for president!” one shouted. “Tom for Christ!” bellowed another. Tom just smiled and walked on.
There’d be a lot more of this, he knew. But mostly it was respectful applause and standing ovations. There was, however, one unexpected greeting in the middle of the third fairway, into which Nick Faldo had stumbled as he made his often erratic progress through his own last round of Open golf at St Andrews.
Faldo had conveniently driven far left at the adjacent 16th hole, which meant he was able to offer Watson a handshake as they passed each other in a memorable snapshot of two great Open champions in the early evening sunshine.
It was the kind of memorable sight to reward those who had stayed out to watch.
So, too, was the rainbow that arched over the estuary as Watson walked up the long fifth fairway – as if on cue for the kid from Kansas at the end of an incredible journey.