SURREY, ENGLAND | Not the least intriguing thing about Tom Watson is that while he is a great and proud American he is at the same time as British as can be. He is a Yank who is an Anglophile. There is a special warmth in the voices of British spectators when they shout “come on Tom!” as they have done for the past two weeks either in the Open at Sandwich or the Senior Open at Walton Heath.
Not many Americans seem so at home in this country and are so curious to learn its rhythms and rituals, so tolerant of what other Americans regard as Britain’s vicissitudes. Without a hint of a frown passing over his freckled face, Watson copes with driving on the left hand side of the road, does not mind queueing, eats fish and chips and in the days when he drank beer did not mind a pint or two of the best bitter.
Watson has spent at least nine months of his life in Britain between his 34 Opens, Senior Opens or just coming over for fun golf.
“The attraction is the love of the game everybody has here,” Watson said during the Senior Open. “You see people out today and they’re following in the rain and (at Sandwich) last week it was the people who made the stands chock a block full when it was raining and blowing 25 mph and raining sideways. That’s why I like it over here.
“This country still has a marvellous flavour to it. It’s different to the country in which I live. The politics are different. Sport is different. It’s football and cricket and golf here. The education is different here. It is all to the good. I love the kids here because they are so polite and they ask you for things in the right way.”
Watson even has a workmanlike grasp of cricket, which is rare among Americans. “I know that they hit the ball,” Watson said. “I know how they score. There are six pitches to an over. I know how they get out. I know how the batters are put out. It has a little to do with American baseball as far as spinning and making the ball move. They make the ball move off the ground rather than through the air, which is different. But that’s about it. I don’t really understand cricket.”
Then there’s his surname, Watson. Tom Watson bears the surname of one of the great characters in British crime literature. Dr Watson was the amanuensis of Sherlock Holmes, the great British detective.
Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Conan Doyle maintained a locker at the New Zealand golf club near Woking and the locker still bears his name though as he is dead it has a line drawn through it. One of Holmes’ catch phrases, which he uses when Watson seems a little dim in understanding something, is: “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
At times at Sandwich and at Walton Heath Watson made golf look elementary. That’s his secret. An uncomplicated swing, a rhythm that shows no sign of disappearing, and a curious and shrewd brain. Watson’s length has shriveled now as he approaches his 62nd birthday, but course management enables him to cope with men half his age who can blast their drives 50 yards past his. When he holed in one on the sixth in the first round at Sandwich, he used a 4-iron; Tom Lewis, his amateur partner and a young man one third as old as he, used a 6-iron.
Because Watson is so intelligent and such a good role model, he is paired with promising young men in the Open. He likes to see the sparkle in their eyes and their enthusiasm and to assess how good they are. “They remind me of me at that age,” he said. He should know, after all. He has won the Open five times and finished second in 2009 and 22nd this year. These promising young men relish the chance to learn from one of the greatest in the game, to see him magic his golf ball around difficult courses, sometimes in foul conditions and to observe how he never seems to stop thinking and often eschews the obvious in favour of the unusual.
At Turnberry in 2009, when Watson was 59, it was Matteo Manassero, the Italian prodigy who was then only 16. At Sandwich when Watson was 61, it was Tom Lewis, who is 20. It is not entirely coincidental that when paired with Watson both Manassero and Lewis went on to win the silver medal as the leading amateur.
It is hard to imagine a time when Watson will not visit Britain annually and light up golf on these shores. He is as much a part of golf in these islands as foursomes and kummel, plus-fours and Labradors. Long may it continue. Long may Watson make it all seem so elementary.