ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | Arnold Palmer was the first to cut through the gloom when last Wednesday’s four-hole Champions’ Challenge had to be cancelled. “Hey,” he said above the roaring wind and rain, “this is Scotland. You’ve got to expect it, and I loved it!”
It was over breakfast that morning that Palmer had recalled a conversation he had with his father at the 1960 Open over the Old Course. When Deacon Palmer commented on the relentless nature of Scottish rain, Arnold had assured him that the Open was never washed out. And that what was at that stage a weekday event never ran into the weekend.
Then, as per last Wednesday, there came a point when rain did stop play. The ’60 Centenary championship finished on the Saturday – a Saturday on which Palmer, then the Masters and U.S. Open champion, lost by a shot to Kel Nagle.
When last week’s Challenge failed to materialise, the now 80-year-old Palmer was one former champion to linger in the dreich conditions to sign autographs; Tom Watson another.
Watson had an appointment for 4:30 behind the clubhouse. He had arranged to meet a lady by the name of Julie Morris who had been in touch with his management group shortly after last year’s Open at Turnberry. The 42-year-old Ayrshire-woman had two Tom Watson scrapbooks she had started as a smitten 12-year-old and had asked the management people if their player would like to receive them through the post.
Watson, on being informed, had said “no” to that. “Don’t send them,” he advised. “Let’s meet at St. Andrews and you can show them to me then.”
This was that meeting. Morris and a friend, along with any number of sodden spectators, stood spellbound as Watson took delivery of the lovingly-prepared works. He chatted for all of 15 minutes and had everyone heading for home with a tale to tell.
Watson and Nick Faldo are much the same age but they could not have had a more different take on the championship proper. The 60-year-old Watson was not thinking of the five Opens he had under his belt. He was out to follow up on a good 2010 Masters and U.S. Open with one more telling result.
Faldo, for his part, wanted to spend his days celebrating the past. “I’m here to enjoy 20 years ago,” he said. He had his son, Matthew, on the bag and the rest of the family were set to follow play.
How lucky it was that the Challenge was just one event on the older champions’ schedule at this 150th Anniversary Open. The previous night, they had the Champions’ Dinner, an occasion for which Palmer sat next to the 86-year-old Roberto de Vicenzo who won his Open in 1967.
De Vicenzo was enjoying the occasion as much as anyone but, as he would reveal to Palmer, there was something still preying on his mind. He was referring to that well-documented tale of how, in 1968, he had been disqualified at Augusta after signing for an incorrect scorecard. Palmer winced in sympathy as he passed on what his old friend had said.
In the immediate aftermath of the mishap, de Vicenzo had uttered a never-to-be-forgotten, “I am a stupid.” At St. Andrews last Tuesday night, he told Palmer and the other guests, “I am still a stupid.”
John Daly, who has often admitted to being less than comfortable at a formal dinner, had stayed within his comfort zone by wearing a jacket of many colours. (Mercifully, it was a special edition and not like those check trousers which his partner had been flogging from a bag as she followed play at Loch Lomond.)
Yet Daly fitted into this very special “club.” No less than the rest, he had, to use Faldo’s words, “survived a Sunday afternoon at the Open when the pressure is ten-fold what it is on a normal last day.”
There was, though, a pecking order at the dinner, one of which some were more conscious than others. Ian Baker-Finch said that players like himself and Mark O’Meara, who had just one Open triumph apiece, were in awe of those like Watson and Peter Thomson who had five. “You’re not treated any differently but it’s just that you feel pretty humble in that company,” said the Australian.
Tony Jacklin wanted to explain why the evening meant so much to him. “As golfers,” he said, “I feel our main role is one of passing the baton. At my first Champions’ Dinner, I shook hands with Arthur Havers, the winner in 1923. And I have always liked to think that Arthur Havers would have shaken hands with Willie Park, who won the first Open of them all.”
During cocktails, Peter Dawson, the CEO of the R&A, had played a video message from Seve Ballesteros. It was short and to the point. The Spaniard sent everyone his best wishes and said he was sorry he could not be with them. “His speech was slow and you could see him marshalling his thoughts,” said Dawson, sadly.
Everyone was touched beyond belief, with nothing more evocative than that moment when, as the words came to an end, Seve blew them all a kiss.
It was an image which will stay with his fellow champions.