ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | Besotted with The Open Championship for decades, and a five-time winner, Tom Watson came to the Old Course knowing he wasn’t in top form. Watson, 60, didn’t expect to come near what he did last year at Turnberry, when, famously, he came to the last hole needing par to win. His 8-iron looked so good, but it ran through the green and the rest is history. Well, it could have been much better history had he won, but so be it.
But Watson, being Watson, wasn’t sad when he came to the Old Course. He knew he had done something so special, even if he had not won and even if he sensed there was no chance of his repeating that performance. He was right. Watson missed the cut by two shots. He paused on the Swilcan Bridge to give it a kiss and in a moment that was it for Watson playing The Open at the Old Course.
He had distinguished himself during the championship, and perhaps never more so than during his press conference the day before the championship started. He was asked whether his loss last year has had any impact on his life. The implication was that he must still be hurting. But Watson, who has always been forthright with the media, and one of the best interviews during the past 40 years or so, quashed that idea.
“Frankly, not,” he said about whether the longer aftermath had been painful. “Honestly, it really hasn’t.” He said that the loss was indeed hard to take, and that “it tore my guts up.” But, he added, the game had shredded his guts before, especially early in his career when he faltered in the latter stages of majors in which he contended.
Sitting at his Wednesday press conference prior to his first round in this year’s Open, it was impossible not to think that here was a wise man of golf who had seen it all and been through it all. Here sat a man who had won five Open Championships, two Masters, and one U.S. Open. He was still playing hard after all these years, and with great heart. But he also had a perspective on the game and on life that the young Watson could not have had.
Watson was patient and open as he considered questions asked of him. He has never talked down to the media, never mocked a journalist even when it may have been warranted. He has looked the person asking the question in the eye, and offered a thoughtful response. He has been aware that journalists have their jobs to do, as he has his.
A man of depth and strong feeling, Watson spoke particularly softly when he was asked about Seve Ballesteros. He, of course, had his memorable battle with Ballesteros at the Old Course during the 1984 Open. Watson then hit the wrong shot from the fairway on the 17th hole the last day, which led to a bogey. Up ahead in the next group, Ballesteros holed from 20 feet to birdie the last hole. Ballesteros won by two shots – the margin set by the birdie/bogey exchange.
But Ballesteros wasn’t in St. Andrews, although he desperately wanted to appear. Now 53, Ballesteros has been dealing with brain cancer, and his doctors advised him not to make the trip to St. Andrews. He had hoped to attend the Tuesday night Champions’ dinner, and play in the Champions’ Challenge that was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon on the first, second, 17th and 18th holes. His absence was deeply felt. He did send a video message, which R&A secretary Peter Dawson showed to the former champions at the dinner.
Ballesteros told his friends that he wanted to be with them, and that he wished he had the energy to be there. Watson watched, and said it was sad to see the former golfing gladiator so weakened, in such a struggle. It seemed that Watson had to catch himself, for he could break out in tears at what he had seen. This was one human being feeling for another suffering human being.
There was vulnerability about Watson at that moment, and it was an attractive vulnerability because it was oh so human. Watson is nearing the end of his competitive career at The Open, and he knows that. He will probably play in The Open again, but certainly this was his last Open at the Old Course. He had won those five Opens, but never at the Old Course.
“St. Andrews is a hard course to understand, and you have to relearn it and relearn it and relearn it all the time,” Watson said. When he kissed the bridge over the Swilcan Burn to say goodbye to Opens at the Old Course, you had the feeling he would return quietly one day to play again, if only for the sheer pleasure of doing so. St. Andrews is in Watson, and Watson is in St. Andrews.