THE Open Championship will not be the same without Tom Watson, five times winner of the competition, lifelong lover of the British linksland and self-confessed sucker for the nostalgia that golf’s ageing legends bring to the game.
In the press room at Royal Liverpool yesterday, the 64-year-old American geared up for his penultimate shot at the Claret Jug with an unashamed wallow in the memories and emotions that have enriched his relationship with the ancient game.
Now the US Ryder Cup captain, Watson talked about Tiger Woods, about Gleneagles and about his [slim] prospects at Hoylake this week, but, more than anything, he talked about his passion for a tournament to which he will bid farewell at St Andrews next summer.
Watson, whose exemption was due to run out this year, has been given an extension by the R&A so that he can play in the 2015 event at the Old Course. It will be his final Open appearance. Forty years after his debut, which ended in a play-off victory at Carnoustie, he will doff his bunnet for one last time at the home of golf.
Like many, Watson was slow to appreciate St Andrews, but he reveres it now. He spoke here about the course, the town, the university and, at one point, went so far as to make favourable comparisons with the Sistine Chapel.
“If I’m getting too sugary, stop me,” said Watson. He was, but we didn’t.
“The town is a very special place. We’ve had wonderful experiences there, my friends and family. And to end my Open career there…people say, it may not be the end, but let’s face it, it’s probably going to be the end of my Open Championship career.
“It means a great deal. I just hope I can hold back enough of the tears to look presentable.”
Don’t bet on it. When he partnered Jack Nicklaus up the 18th at St Andrews in 2005, Watson was in floods of tears from tee to green as his friend, rival and one-time “matinee idol” paused to wave from the Swilkan Bridge on his way to a birdie that brought his unparalleled Open career to an end.
“I was crying like a baby,” recalled Watson. “Off the tee, I started bawling. Here was the greatest player in the game. He’s finishing his career and he meant a great deal to me. He was the man I wanted to beat. But, more importantly, we became friends and confidants. It was a very special time.”
So emotional was Watson that his playing partner turned to him on the final green and told him to get a grip.
“You’ve got to concentrate on this putt here,” said Nicklaus. “Stop crying. You’ve got to make the cut here.”
Watson made the putt, and the cut, which was the least of his achievements in this championship. None of his victories has been at St Andrews, or, for that matter, Royal Liverpool, but he has lifted the trophy at five different venues. And, of course, he nearly topped the lot at the age of 59 when he narrowly failed to win the 2009 title at Turnberry.
A lot has changed since Watson pitched up at Carnoustie in 1975. The tented village has grown out of all recognition, and there was just a hint of regret in his observation that the traditional yellow scoreboards have been replaced this year, but the golf – despite technology – is much the same as it was.
He knows about the links, and what it takes to win, which is why he will not be surprised if Tiger Woods makes a challenge at Hoylake this week.
Despite returning only recently from long-term injury, Woods said the other day that he planned to win at the scene of his last Open triumph, a remark that many have construed as unduly optimistic.
“Why can’t you understand that Tiger might very well win this tournament?” asked Watson.
“I wouldn’t write off Tiger Woods for a long time, the way he plays the game. He’s a tough competitor. He knows how to swing the golf club. Yes, he’s had some injuries and other things, but the thing is, he’s had a long career and I fully expect it to be a longer career. But to criticise him for saying that he wants to win? Did he say ‘I want to win’ or ‘I am going to win’?”
As it happens, Woods said he “intended” to win, a sentiment doubtless shared by most of this week’s field.
It is the kind of attitude Watson expects from a man who has already triumphed in 14 major championships, the kind of assurance that he could do with in next month’s Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.
“If he’s playing well and he’s healthy, I’ll pick him,” said the US captain. “I want him on the team. He’s a tough competitor and he’s great in the team room. Wouldn’t you want him on your team?”
Watson, who will play with Furyk and Darren Clarke in Thursday’s opening round, was at Gleneagles last weekend, playing the PGA Centenary Course. While most of his prospective players were too busy to join him, the contrasting games of Keegan Bradley and Jim Furyk gave him an indication of what to expect.
Watson is happy with the Perthshire track, despite his previous reservations. “My estimation of the golf course was wrong in the past. It is a really a good golf course. It’s in wonderful shape. The greens are in great shape. If we have decent weather, there will be a lot of birdies made in the Ryder Cup. If we have good weather, it will be a shootout I think. We’ll see some fireworks there.”
And a few tears, probably.