Interview: One final parting shot for Tom Watson

Tom Watson at St Andrews where he will play his last Open next month. Picture: Chris Allerton
Tom Watson at St Andrews where he will play his last Open next month. Picture: Chris Allerton
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Forty years after his first Open, Tom Watson will end his Claret Jug joust at a place he thought he had kissed goodbye for good

Sitting in the boardroom on the fourth floor of the Old Course Hotel, Tom Watson turned to his left and gazed towards the Swilcan Bridge. Nearly five years ago, he stopped before crossing it in the fading light and planted a kiss on the small stone structure. “I did that because I thought it was going to be my last Open Championship at St Andrews, I sure did,” recalled the American.

Tom Watson kisses the Swilken Bridge during what he thought would be his last Open at St Andrews. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Tom Watson kisses the Swilken Bridge during what he thought would be his last Open at St Andrews. Picture: Ian Rutherford

It would have been if the R&A hadn’t pulled off a masterstroke by extending the five-year exemption Watson secured for finishing second in 2009 at Turnberry by 12 months. The decision means he will get the chance to bid farewell to the game’s oldest major where he should, even though none of his five victories in the event was achieved at the “Home of Golf”.

Forty years after his first appearance, which, of course, produced a win at Carnoustie, Watson is set to bring down the curtain on the Claret Jug joust on the hallowed fairways of the Old Course, just as his great friend and rival, Jack Nicklaus, did a decade ago. Fittingly, Watson was one of his playing partners as Nicklaus, who recorded two of his three victories in the event at St Andrews, stood on the Swilcan Bridge and waved farewell amid emotional scenes. “I was crying like a baby for Jack when I went up the last with him when he made his final appearance here,” recalled Watson, a Polo Ralph Lauren Ambassador. “I don’t think I’ll cry too much for myself, although I will have my son on the bag, so it may evoke some tears.”

Given Watson’s popularity with Scottish golf fans, the Valley of Sin could well be flooded by the time he heads up the steps at the back of the 18th green for the last time, especially with the R&A creating a new grandstand arena for almost 10,000 spectators.

“I’ve played it out a little bit in my head how I’m going to feel walking up the 18th hole here in my last Open Championship,” admitted Watson. “I was here on Monday and I walked by the Swilcan Bridge and I felt a little melancholy, a little sad. But the more I look at it, I’ve had such a wonderful run at the Open Championship that there are too many good memories to be so sad, even though it is over. It is like a death, the finality of that. It’s over, but let the void of that death be filled by those memories and that helps soothe the disappointment of the melancholy.”

Tom Watson has a "mutual respect" for the Scottish people. Picture: Getty

Tom Watson has a "mutual respect" for the Scottish people. Picture: Getty

Watson had a busy diary during his visit to St Andrews last week. It was planned to maximise his marketing value, but also to try to give him a chance to get on with playing golf when the 144th Open Championship comes around on 16-19 July. He still found time to do the sort of things most visitors to the town do. Popping across from the Old Course Hotel for some putting practice on the Himalayas, for instance, and happily posing for photographs. One delighted person posted his snap on Facebook and described Watson as a “true gentleman”, adding that “a few pros could learn a thing or two about how to conduct themselves from him”.

Told about that, the 65-year-old smiled before taking mild exception when I suggested that was a general “perception” of him. “My father always told me, ‘you treat people how you want to be treated’,” he said. “If you do that, life is pretty simple. If you get people who treat you the way you don’t want to be treated, then you let them go. Sometimes it is hard when you have commitments and people ask you to stop for a picture. I’ve been snippety myself, saying ‘I can’t do it now’. But people who love the game or are around the game deserve to be treated how you treat your dad or your wife. That’s the deal.”

At a dinner in the R&A Clubhouse, Watson was introduced by a Ralph Lauren executive as “arguably the greatest Open champion”. To many, he might well be but, doffing his cap to one man with more wins in the event than himself and another on the same mark, Watson politely pointed out: “Don’t forget Harry [Vardon] or Peter [Thomson].”

Despite all his visits over the years, Watson still has trouble understanding Scottish tongues. “I kid about it, but it’s the truth – I wish I could understand the language better,” he said, smiling. But he has always been on the same wavelength as the golfing public in the game’s birthplace “I have a mutual respect for the Scottish people,” he confessed. “The reason for that is they have a passion for the game. They love the game and that includes the people who don’t play it. They still understand it. That’s the reason for my affinity with them. It’s a genuine love they have for the game and that’s the thing that is most apparent to me.

Tom Watson winning at Turnberry in 1977. Picture: Hamish Campbell

Tom Watson winning at Turnberry in 1977. Picture: Hamish Campbell

“I remember the first time I played in The Open at Carnoustie. I was leaving the house for the play-off on the Sunday. It was raining and a girl in her bare feet came over to me and said this is for ‘guid luck’ – I could barely understand her. She gave me a piece of white heather that was wrapped in foil. I put it my bag and it didn’t leave my bag for years. It’s that sort of spontaneity that I’ve loved and also the appreciation people have for the game here. They have a great understanding of the game and it’s unlike anywhere in the world, I think.”

He also appreciates the traditions of the game in Scotland, even though it once earned him a ticking off. “I’ve had some great times over here,” he declared. “I missed the cut one time at Muirfield and had always wanted to see the Isle of Skye. As as it turned out, we went to the Isle of Mull. We went over to Tobermory, staying overnight and playing the course the next morning. We were coming back and the Open Championship was on the radio. It got down to a play-off and I said, ‘we have to stop somewhere and watch this on TV’. We were crossing back across the centre of Scotland and were looking for a pub but ended up in a golf club, though I can’t remember its name. I went in wearing my ball cap and we bought a beer and sat down to watch the golf. All of a sudden, I hear someone yelling at me, ‘hat off, hat off’, having forgotten that I hadn’t adhered to a tradition over here of taking your hat off in the golf club.”

Just before our interview, the PGA Tour Classic being shown on Sky Sports was Watson’s win in the 1998 Colonial – the last of his 38 triumphs on that circuit. As Watson was hitting his second shot into the last, the commentator said: “Wow, look how far Jim Furyk has hit his drive past Tom”. Furyk, of course, is now one of the shorter hitters in the game and Watson, like Nicklaus, believes the only way to get a more level playing field back in the sport is by addressing modern golf ball technology.

“They’ve had to make the courses longer to allow the sort of shots greens were built for and Augusta is a perfect example of that,” he opined. “They’ve also done it here at the Old Course by moving a few tees back. I don’t know if they can do it, but I’d like them to bring the ball back 10 per cent, I really would. A lot of the distance has to do with the conditioning of players today. They saw how Tiger [Woods] conditioned himself and almost all of them are stronger now, thereby creating more clubhead speed. Just look at Rory. He’s done it dramatically. His body is a lot different to what it was a couple of years back. I concur with Jack about reining the ball in, but I honestly can’t see it happening.”

Watson had hoped Nicklaus would come out of retirement to share his final Open appearance. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he admitted. It will be interesting to see who the R&A pick to be in Watson’s group, though it is unlikely to be either Woods or Phil Mickelson. Watson, after all, has been forthright in his comments about Woods over the years while his relationship with Mickelson can never be the same again after the left-hander’s public criticism of his captain in the immediate aftermath of last year’s Ryder Cup defeat at Gleneagles. “I don’t know who I’d like to be there with me,” he admitted. “I don’t really care, to be honest, as there are plenty of good people out here.”

What about Gleneagles, where his side crashed 16.5-11.5? Does he look back on that with any regrets?

“I think to myself, ‘I made the best decisions I could at the time with the best information I had and that’s all I can ask’,” he insisted. “Our team was not up to the European team’s standard – they were better than we were. They were 50-plus under par more than we were. They played better golf, although with that said we had an opportunity on the Sunday morning if we’d managed to keep the positions we found ourselves in after making a great start.”

He paid tribute to his opposite number, Paul McGinley, but stressed that it was ultimately down to the European players that they came out on top. “As a captain, you can do your job well when you have the players,” added Watson. “I give credit to Paul for the way he prepared his team. He did a lot of things that you have to do to win it. You basically set the stage for your players and he did all the right things.”

Whether it’s after two rounds or four, the stage at St Andrews will belong to Thomas Sturges Watson when he bids farewell to the event that moulded his glittering career. Having already kissed it, does he have anything different in mind for that final walk over the Swilcan Bridge? “Sit down and claim it,” he said, laughing.

• Tom Watson is a Polo Ralph Lauren Ambassador. Polo Ralph Lauren is a Patron and Official Outfitter of The 144th Open.