Tom Watson wants to get “even” with the Old Course at St Andrews in the much-anticipated first staging of the Senior Open Championship there later this month but appears to have no desire to do likewise with Phil Mickelson, the man who threw him under the bus following the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.
If Watson has been waiting on his chance to bite back at Mickelson for choosing the public setting of a press conference attended by the entire American team to criticise the losing captain in Perthshire, then it had surely been delivered on a plate in the recent US Open at Shinnecock Hills.
So, what did the five-time Open champion make of his compatriot stunning the golfing world by deliberately hitting a moving ball on the 13th green in the third round, not being disqualified for doing so and then raising his arms in mock triumph after holing a putt on the same green in the final round?
“I laughed out loud when he did it because I commiserated with him,” said Watson, declining to pull out the knife put in his back by Mickelson and thrusting it back at the left-hander, though that, of course, should be no real surprise when you are a classy individual like the man from Kansas.
“I knew exactly what he was feeling,” added Watson. “He was so frustrated. You as a golfer, me as a golfer, everybody who has been a golfer has shared that frustration. We have busted through the frustration level and we just had to act out on it and that’s all he did. No, he shouldn’t have been disqualified. No, not at all. He just was totally frustrated about it. He did what any golfer might want to do and he did it, he just acted out on it, and I still laugh about it.”
Yet Mickelson himself said it was almost premeditated, that he knew exactly what he was doing to try to save some shots. “I really don’t care about that,” continued Watson. “I just know the frustration he had and I shared it. I think it’s great. I think it was much ado about nothing. People have just made a mountain out of a molehill here. I mean, let it go. Every golfer has had that. They have thrown golf clubs and they have sworn and done other things that we laugh at. It’s an iconic moment in the history of meltdowns.”
Watson has never been closer to his own meltdown than when he got his first taste of links golf.
“I didn’t like the game,” he recalled of that experience at Monifieth in the build up to his winning debut in the Open Championship at Carnoustie in 1975. “I didn’t like the way the game was played. I didn’t like the bounce. I didn’t like the luck of the bounce and how the ball couldn’t stop. I didn’t like that. It was frustrating to me to play the game over there.”
Even after winning his second Claret Jug at Turnberry in 1977, he still hadn’t become the links lover he is today. “In ‘79 at Lytham, I went in there not playing very well and, of course, the links land added to my frustration and kind of had a talking with myself midway through the second round. I said, ‘Watson, get off your pity pot. You’ve got to stop disliking the game. You’ve got to take what comes. You’ve got to deal with what each shot gives you here’.” That’s certainly an attitude he’ll be adopting for that ground-breaking Senior Open Championship on 26-29 July, when no fewer than 38 major champions and 12 Ryder Cup captains will be in the field. For Watson, it will be an opportunity to say a proper goodbye at St Andrews after his final round in the Open Championship in 2015 ended in the dark and a bogey on the 18th.
“It allows me to rectify my last hole of Open Championship golf, which I concluded was a pretty good drive, a shank and a three-putt for a bogey on the 18th at the final hole at St Andrews. I’d like to get even with that just a little bit,” he admitted.
“The superlatives sometimes are overdone, but the Senior Open needs to be at St Andrews and there’s just a little bit of extra excitement about going to St Andrews to play there again.”
One last hurrah, maybe?
“Well, I still have the belief that I can compete against the old guys. Actually, I’m the old guy in the group most likely,” said the 68-year-old, laughing.
“I might have a few tricks up my sleeve, being able to play St Andrews, and if I get my putter going....”