HE SHOULD have listened to Jack Nicklaus. Instead, he let his ego get in the way. It cost Tom Watson his chance of an Open Championship victory at St Andrews and a third successive Claret Jug triumph.
The American is returning to the Old Course this week for his farewell appearance in golf’s oldest major. It will be an emotional occasion for Watson, having recorded four of his five wins in the event on Scottish soil.
His Claret Jug collection would have been bigger but for a poor eight-foot putt on the final hole at Turnberry six years ago. Just as sore, though, was losing out to Seve Ballesteros at St Andrews in 1984.
Co-leader with Australian Ian Baker-Finch heading into the final round, Watson made bogey at the 17th at the same time as the Spaniard holed for birdie at the last to prompt his memorable celebration. The shot Watson hit for approach at the Road Hole is one he still regrets.
“I had more than 200 yards to go and was on an upslope, a knob on the right side of the fairway,” he recalled. “I didn’t know how to chase it then and I tried to hit the ball on to the green in the air.
“So I took the risky shot, the shot that would land on the green, a very narrow place to hit it. But I hit a lousy shot, pushing it 30 yards to the right.” It came to rest close to the wall, from where Watson was unable to get up and down. Given a mulligan, he’d have played the hole the way Nicklaus, a two-times St Andrews winner, had advised him to.
“Jack always said you go for the front of the green, never go beyond,” added Watson. “But I thought, ‘I can do this’. My ego got in the way. On top of that, I hit a bad shot. That’s how I assess it. But I don’t have any feeling of that being a missed opportunity. I have won more than my fair share. It just didn’t happen here at St Andrews.”
Thanks to a special dispensation created for him by the R&A, the 65-year-old has one more chance to add St Andrews to Carnoustie (1972), Turnberry (1977), Muirfield (1980) and Royal Troon (1982) on his list of Scottish successes in the event. It’s a tall order, of course, but not impossible. The venue will certainly inspire Watson.
“This is a special place to have a golf tournament,” he said. “The course starts and ends in the town and the beauty is that any changes haven’t changed the golf course. It still plays as it was so many years ago. Bunkers are in the same place, greens are the same, maybe a little faster but not much. You see pictures and the greens are a little shaggier. Kinda like my eyebrows.
“You always see people out here playing and being so excited. More than you see at any other golf courses. They are truly excited to be here at the Old Course – and it gets me excited.”
During a walk round it last month, Watson got his first look at the flattened left half of the 11th green.
“They did the right thing,” he said of that change since the last Open Championship there in 2011. “In 1978, they had a flag position there. If I recall, I made a birdie, but I had a putt that broke about six feet, and I remember saying: ‘Boy, this is a tough putt, they are going to have trouble with this flag position. I made it from about 30 feet, and it broke about six feet. There was too much slope there. Now they can use it.”
Turnberry may have caused heartbreak in 2009, when Watson lost to Stewart Cink in a play-off, but his victory there 32 years earlier is the moment that stands out above all Watson’s great Open Championship memories.
“For several reasons,” he said. “One being that it was one of the tournaments that I felt I was going to win. I’ve had only a handful of those in my career, literally. I really felt I was going to win that one, just a gut feeling. I was playing so well, some of the best golf I have ever played.
“It just so happened I was playing against Jack Nicklaus (the “Duel in the Sun”). What was so special was at the 18th Jack caught me by the neck coming off the green and he said: ‘Tom I gave it my best shot and it wasn’t good enough. Congratulations. I’m proud of you’.
“That comment coming from the greatest player who has ever played the game was really important to me. It was a watershed moment because I had trouble winning tournaments. Even that year I won four times, but I lost a couple, so they were still calling me a choker. It took me a while to learn how to win. But, at that point, I really had confidence in my game and that I could play with the best players in the world.”