ON THE last occasion Tom Watson was making himself heard above the sound of flapping canvas in a media tent on these shores, he was one of two protagonists in the most astonishing press conference many present could recall witnessing.
Many there that day have held on to the transcripts, revealing the full details of the very public spat that developed. In the full view of astonished sports writers, Phil Mickelson took Watson to task for the Ryder Cup failure that saw the United States team take a pounding.
But it was nothing compared to the pounding the supposedly cuddly Mickelson dished out to Watson, the avuncular and supposedly much-loved team captain. After he had beaten Watson in the play-off in that incredible Open at Turnberry in 2009, Stewart Cink said he felt like he’d “shot Bambi”. At Gleneagles that evening in October it was as if Mickelson was skinning the carcass for good measure.
Watson, he said, had not let the players become “invested” in the selection process. They had strayed from the “winning formula” of so-called ‘pods’ under Paul Azinger’s successful captaincy in 2008.
This was the club Mickelson was using to clobber Watson – Azinger showed the way to do it, Watson how not to do it. All of which might have been fine, were Watson not sitting just yards away, visibly shrinking in his seat. The skipper revealed Mickelson had pleaded with him to play on Saturday, in person and then by text. Watson took the view that, at the age of 44, it would have been too much for him.
So he was always going to be asked about this yesterday, when Watson pitched up at St Andrews, one of the few places in Scotland where he hasn’t won an Open title, to ruminate on his life, and golf.
Phil was very disappointed about not being able to play. It was kind of sour grapesTom Watson
‘Folksy’ is how people describe his conversational manner. And folksy it was in extreme yesterday. As the wind ruffled the canvas roof and walls, you could have sat listening to him talk all day, even if some of the stories, such as the one about being handed some white heather wrapped in tinfoil by a girl from Carnoustie before his win there in 1975, you’ve heard a million times before.
But he wasn’t being particularly folksy with regards to Mickelson, who he had spoken to the previous evening. Asked how relations were between them now, he replied: “cordial”. A reporter had brought up the subject. Noting Watson’s relaxed and contented bearing, it was suggested to him that he was “enjoying this press conference a lot more than the one in Gleneagles”.
Watson has been fairly guarded on the subject but he was more expansive yesterday, perhaps reasoning that, on the day he revealed that not only is this likely to be his last Open, the Masters next year would be his last appearance there too, what did he have to lose?
“That was a disappointment,” Watson said, when asked how he felt Mickelson treated him that day. “Phil was very disappointed about not being able to play. It was kind of sour grapes. That’s understandable. We’d just got waxed, and the disappointment was there for the whole team.
“We let out hearts talk for us,” he added.
But Watson had no regrets, not even when asked about that putt to win what would have been his sixth Open in 2009, at the age of 59.
He is clearly at peace with what happened at Turnberry, even if the rest of us haven’t been able to achieve such closure. And perhaps he’s right to be so at ease with the other one that got away, following another near-miss here in St Andrews in 1984, when a much younger man.
Perhaps he is right to refuse to be downcast about letting slip the greatest sports story ever told, which is what it would have been, no question.
But there’s some grandeur, too, in the way it ended for him there, on the course where he tasted such sun-burnished glory in 1977. Coming so close to winning it back at Turnberry is almost a better tale, in the way Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt in the World Cup final was a more memorable exit, because it was the opposite of the fairy-tale anticipated. And let’s face it, and will all due respect to Cink, Watson was the one who triumphed.
But it clearly hurt Watson at the time. He used words such as “turmoil” and “sadness” yesterday to describe how he felt. How could it not be the source of some anguish, coming a poor putt away from clinching an Open title while on the brink of turning 60.
But a call from Jack Nicklaus, the rival he duelled with across the same dunes over 30 years earlier, consoled him. Perhaps he was the only person who could. After complimenting Watson for the three shots he played before that fateful putt, he added: “Tom, you hit the putt like the rest of us would have hit it”.
Watson added: “That cracked me up, because he knew – it was coming from the greatest player in the game. He knew how to console me, and I love him for it.”
And we love Tom, for coming over here and winning four of his five Open championships in Scotland, and for doing it with grace and style. He has accepted the end is nigh, and is treating this as a bonus – after all, he has already made a farewell walk across the Swilcan Bridge in 2010, before the R&A handed him a special exemption.
“It’s deja va all over again, like Yogi Bear said,” said Watson. “With my friends and family who are there, we’ve got a few housefuls of people coming over for my last Open. It’s going to be wonderful to have them around, and we’ll have a big party on Friday night.
“But,” he added. “I hope that’s just in between four rounds that I am going to play.”
Although Pat Sawers, chairperson of the Carnoustie Golf Links, presented him yesterday with a framed commemorative flag celebrating the 40th anniversary of his first major win at the Angus course in 1975, Watson doesn’t want this appearance to turn into a “ceremony”.
Of course, if he features in the top ten – he couldn’t, could he? – then he will have another five Opens to look forward to, health permitting.
So he is here to compete, like he did in 2009 when he surprised everyone by putting his name back on the leaderboard. “I scared a few of the kids that week,” he smiled. “They looked up at the board and they saw ‘Watson’, and they were thinking, ‘well, that’s Bubba’.”
But it wasn’t, it was Tom; or “the old fogey”,” as he referred to himself that night, during a tear-soaked press conference (ours, not his). And now, sadly, it really could be the end.