“I guess you might say there is a little bit of regret,” admitted the 71-year-old American as he wistfully looked back on coming up short in his attempts to win the game’s oldest major on the Old Course. “But, with five other Open Championships under my belt, I guess it tempered it somewhat.”
The closest the Kansas man came to landing the prize at the fabled Fife venue was in 1984, when he was the co-leader heading into the final round before finishing two shots behind Seve Ballesteros after taking an untimely bogey-5 at the 17th.
Six years earlier, he had been in the same position after 54 holes, only to end up six strokes behind the winner, his long-time rival Jack Nicklaus, in a tie for 14th following a closing 76.
“I had my opportunities to win there, recalled Watson, who, in 1984, was bidding to get his hands on the Claret Jug for the third year in a row and sixth time in 10 years. “I was playing really well,” he added of that title bid, “and tried the heroic shot at 17th and it didn’t come off.”
Watson, who said his farewell to the event at St Andrews in 2015 - “I finished with a shank and a three-putt and I wish I could have that over again” - was speaking on a video call set up to mark the start of the countdown to next year’s historic 150th Open at the home of golf.
“I will be there, the good Lord willing,” he said, smiling. “St Andrews is the iconic place that people think about when they think about links golf or the Open Championship or playing golf in Scotland.
“I still have the feeling when I am on the tee ground at 1 and 18 that this is the very same tee ground that all these players who played in the Open Championship going back 150 years stood on and hit their tee balls. It’s a wonderful feeling to have.”
Gary Player, a three-time Open champion, said he believes the Old Course will be “obsolete” when it stages next year’s event as the game’s new wave of big-hitters, led by US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, tackle it for the first time.
Watson believes that won’t necessarily be the case, even though he sees holes like the ninth, 10th, 12th and, downwind, the 16th and, of course, the 18th being in range from the tee.
“It is going to be interesting to see how they play the course,” he admitted. “Look at how John Daly played it when he played the play-off (in 1995). He hit driver to 16, he took those bunkers out of play by bombing it over them into the rough.
“If the R&A is smart, they will make that rough really deep over those bunkers, forcing the players to lay up short of those bunkers and hit the proper shot into that hole. I think they could do that with the set up.
“Holes like No 9 and No 10, sure they will drive those holes, but people love to see it - I love to see it. It’s wonderful to see these players hit the ball so far.
"But the thing is they still have to perform. They still have to putt, they still have to chip, they have to keep those long drives from going into the landmines as I call those bunkers.
“They have to play their way around there and be smart, no matter how far they hit it. I remember playing St Andrews where you had to lay up with an iron on the tee shot at 14 because it would roll 100 yards. They R&A like fast conditions, they want it fiery, they want it hard and fast.
“Two Opens ago at St Andrews, I remember the greens were slower than the fairways in speed. Literally. The fairways were dry and burnt out and they were faster than the greens.”
Watson, who agonisingly missed out on the chance to pull off the feat himself at the age of 59 at Turnberry in 2009, said he thought it was “wonderful” to see 50-year-old Phil Mickelson becoming the game’s oldest major champion with his recent win in the US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.
“But it didn't surprise me,” he added. “Phil still hits the ball a long way. If you can do that, you can still perform against anybody on the tour. “The up-and-down he made it 18 on Saturday, the bunker shot he holed on the fifth on Sunday, those were typical Phil Mickelson. He is the best short-game player in the world, so it didn't surprise me that he ended up winning the tournament, frankly.”
Mickelson is now gearing up to try and complete a career grand slam in the upcoming US Open. “Torrey Pines will be easy compared to Kiawah,” predicted Watson, who is also upbeat about Tiger Woods being able to make a full recovery from the serious leg injuries sustained in a car crash in February.
“It was his right foot that was damaged and you can play with a damaged right side,” he said of the three-time Open champion, including a double St Andrews success in 2000 and 2005.
“I would suspect that Tiger will be back playing professional golf before next year's Open Championship. when I hope it's fiery, baked out and grey and the winds are blowing 25 to 30 mph.”