BY the time they reached the 17th tee together on Friday night, it was as if they were finding their way by the light of the glowing leader-board which stood nearby. An R & A official looked agitated. He was being pestered via radio to let the players know they had the option to retire until the morning.
So it was a conversation these three players left standing in the gloaming needed to have. Should they try and finish the round now or come back the next day, providing Ernie Els and Brandt Snedeker with – they hoped – more optimal conditions to continue their challenge as they battled to make the projected cut?
I had an inkling of what Bobby probably felt like
The third player in the group, a five-time Open champion, was already aware his time had come and gone whatever happened in the final two holes. So Tom Watson turned to his partners, and said: “Gentlemen you’re both in the tournament, you’re both right there. Whatever you want to do, you do. I’m not in the tournament. You guys, you’re in the tournament, do what you want to do.”
Els looked at Snedeker; Snedeker looked at Els. Of course they wanted to maximise their chances of doing well. These prospects would likely be enhanced if they left such a challenging tee-shot for when they could actually see the dimples on the ball they were addressing. But Els looked at Snedeker. “You want to finish?” he asked. “Yeah, I’d like to get it over with.” Els said: “I do too”.
According to Watson, “that was all that needed to be spoken”. When the official came back up and asked if they had reached a decision, Snedeker said firmly: “Yes. We’ll finish.”
So we walked on. We watched Snedeker incur the greatest damage for this decision to play on by posting a double bogey at the Road Hole. And we walked on towards a welcome home that Watson later compared to the one Bobby Jones received on his first visit back to St Andrews in 1936 after he had completed the Grand Slam.
But we would have been robbed of these spine-tingling scenes had Els and Snedeker put themselves first – and they wouldn’t have been the first golfers to do that. Of course, they both knew their own title hopes were not the story here. They had to defer to Watson, even if he was adamant that they shouldn’t. Typically, Watson wanted his partners to put their own ambitions first.
But Els and Snedeker also had to defer to the people lining the course, those who were prepared to stay out until nearly 10pm to cheer a 65 year-old back home one final time in the crepuscular light. We were all determined to see this story out until the very end.
Even before we got to the setting for that iconic photograph of him standing on the Swilcan Bridge there was a reason for the hairs to stand up on the back of the neck. As Watson passed the Old Course hotel, guests, hosts and even hotel workers spilled out into the ground floor garden enclosure to cheer him. Course marshals tipped their caps as he passed.
How could anyone be expected to concentrate on their game with all this going on? It’s a wonder Watson managed nothing worse than five consecutive bogeys as he negotiated the last holes of the inward nine to finish with an 8-over round of 80, the cold and gathering gloom combining with the deep emotion to further hamper his efforts.
At the last tee, he turned to his son, who was carrying his bag, and said: “Michael, there should be no tears, this should be all joy”.
But Watson later conceded he had been tested by what followed. R & A officials and their guests spilled out of the clubhouse, as did players such as Tom Lehman, Matt Kuchar and Graeme McDowell. On The Links, the street that runs parallel to the 18th hole fairway, local golf enthusiasts packed the pavement, 15 to 20 people deep in places.
It made Watson think about the story of Bobby Jones. “I am not putting myself in the same shoes as Bobby Jones,” he cautioned. “But when Bobby won the Grand Slam, he came back and played a friendly here at the Old Course in St Andrews.
“Walking up the 18th, as the legend goes, Bobby was engulfed by thousands of people who had come out and heard that he was on the golf course.
“They watched him finish right there at the 18th hole. And when I was going up there, I think I had an inkling of what Bobby probably felt like when he walked up the 18th hole.
“It’s a special place with special people,” added Watson of his adopted home of Scotland.
“The feeling is mutual, from day one, when I started at Carnoustie right across the waters over there.”
That had proved an unexpected win for the kid from Kansas with a dislike for links golf. But it helped ignite an unexpected love affair between him and Scotland that has blossomed through the years.