The Open: Tom Watson revels in new Open season

Five-time winner Tom Watson will be watching how the leading American players cope under pressure. Picture: Jane Barlow
Five-time winner Tom Watson will be watching how the leading American players cope under pressure. Picture: Jane Barlow
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IT’S all about the fundamentals, according to Tom Watson. And when it comes to golf, when this sporting sage speaks, people listen.

Moments earlier he had held his Muirfield audience in rapture, just as he has so many times on the fairways and the greens. This time he was ensnaring a new generation of admirers, inspiring them to love the game as he has done for almost six decades.

The latest recipient of the Golf Foundation’s Spirit of Golf award, he was presented with a silver and glass replica of the Claret Jug. The punters packed in to see him, some of them reliving moments when they witnessed him hold aloft the real thing, while others were too young to remember the glory days of the ’70s and ’80s when he won eight majors, five of them at the Open and one of those on this course.

But as he posed for photographs and offered pointers to the youngsters in his company, it wasn’t memories of those halcyon days stirring in his mind, it was the thought of what these kids could go on to achieve and the recollections of his own introduction to the sport.

“If you get the opportunity to start this early it’s great. I had the opportunity. My dad was a great player and had a passion for it. He started me at six years old,” said the living legend, who will tee off in his 33rd Open Championships at 9am today. For him, the early introduction represented the chance to capture his interest before too many other distractions began to vie for attention, to harness the enthusiasm and capitalise on the ability kids have to absorb the good habits before the bad ones can be formed.

“It’s easier to be taught the fundamentals at their age! I do remember my dad holding my head as I swung. He said, ‘here’s the way you grip the club, keep your head still and swing’. He held my head, I made a swing, I kept my balance and he didn’t have to hold my head any more. I was lucky.”

The early prowess was there and his father knew it. “When I was eight, my dad took us on a vacation, the whole family to Colorado. We wanted to play golf on the day before we returned. We went to a club and my dad asked the starter if we could play. The guy looked over at me and says ‘he’s too young to play, he can’t play’. But my dad was an insurance salesman, and he was good. He said ‘ok, if my son can hit it over that burn which is about a 50-yard carry on the first hole, can he play?’ The guys said ‘yeah, he can play’. My dad came to me and said ‘son, here’s the deal’... that was my first bout with pressure. But I whipped that thing right over there. In later years, my dad said it went 150 yards.”

The new US Ryder Cup captain places a lot of emphasis on the ability to cope, having seen the American side collapse in Medinah as the Europeans cranked up the anxiety levels.

He knows that in the 12 singles matches played on that decisive last day in Medinah, Europe were collectively 25-under par compared with eight-under for the Americans.

“The fun part is that the players know I’m looking at them. I’m trying to figure out who the best players are. I’m getting to know them, their names, their wives. I’m watching all the championships now. I rarely watched the PGA Tour on TV. Only the majors. Now I want to find out who’s got bottle.”

The ability to cope with pressure and those early fundamentals have morphed superbly with Watson’s drive and diligence over the years. Even at the age of 59 he memorably challenged for the 2009 Open and he still considers himself a contender. “There is an element to this course, how hard and fast it is, that suits me. That element gives me a chance. Today I made a little adjustment in practice and I’m back to where I should be. I’m going in with an unsure but positive attitude rather than an unsure and negative attitude.”

The last time he won a major was 30 years ago, but since then he has been more successful on Ryder Cup duty, captaining the last USA team to win on European soil, in 1993. He would love to replicate that at Gleneagles next year. He is up against a man he admires, though, in Paul McGinley. The pair met for dinner on Monday night. It lasted three hours, said Watson, and less than an hour was dedicated to next year’s showdown. They agreed there will be more of a community feel with players getting together more often. But there is still a fervent desire to win that has not waned with age.

“It is really, really heartfelt, this competition. Our players were really, really low after they lost last year. Extremely low. That came from Davis Love and he said he had never been in a Ryder Cup team, and he’s been on a lot, that had the solidarity this team had and, after the first two days, everything was going great but then the Europeans said, ‘not so fast’. Suddenly there was a lot of blue on that board and that puts a lot of pressure on the leaders.”

But pressure is a fundamental he wants the kids to learn early. Just as he did when his dad showed him a burn 50 yards from the tee on a Colorado course and explained the deal.