The notion that Tom Watson would readily accept this, the 144th Open Championship, as his final appearance in the event is at odds with his character. Watson may be widely portrayed as a cuddly 65-year-old but he has always been one of his sport’s hardest characters.
For all this Open has been billed as Watson’s last hurrah there is an alternative scenario. As a past champion Watson would be eligible for another five Opens should he finish this one in the top 10.
Improbable, yes, but not impossible.
“I’m not totally convinced,” admits Watson when asked if this is indeed goodbye. “Never say never as far as a competitor is concerned. Do I have enough of it left to compete and finish in the top 10? Which is my goal this week, to finish in the top 10 and be able to play in the Open Championship for another five years on a special exemption.
“I am sure there will be a few tears shed on the Swilcan Bridge. I hope it is on Sunday, I hope I have that chance to make it into the top 10. Those are my goals. If it doesn’t happen that way, it will be a bittersweet final walk.
“I still feel somewhat competitive. There are some holes I can play well out here, there are others I have great difficulty with, like the 4th and 2nd. I have a game plan, I have played the course enough times to figure it out but when all is said and done that walk across the [Swilcan] bridge will be a special time in my career. And my life.”
This is typical Watson. Not that he is lacking in emotion, far from it. He cried more than anybody when his playing partner and long-time rival Jack Nicklaus exited the Open, also at this venue, 10 years ago. In 2010 Watson reckoned his time was also up.
“I really haven’t pictured it too much,” he admits of this year’s scene. “I have been there, been on the bridge saying final goodbyes that weren’t final goodbyes.
“The bottom line is I am grateful to have been able to play for all these years. The time has come for a final farewell. It is a little bit like death, there is a finality like death. But the memories fill this up, wonderful memories, including at St Andrews; I never won here but I played well enough to win here.”
Watson has no interest in continuing his playing career when challenging at the upper echelons of leaderboards is impossible. “I truly don’t.”
But when will that end point arrive? “It just depends on how I am playing and how well I feel I can compete,” he says. “I have lost some distance in the last couple of years and that’s the problem.
“I have a desire to go out and hit great shots, to compete, to hit shots under pressure that mean something. That is what I love to do. I still have that gut feeling that I am out here to do that. Hopefully I have that this week, that I’m in a position to hit shots under pressure.”
Watson’s love for all things links and St Andrews was an unlikely one for so long. Even when he won the first of five Open Championships, at Carnoustie in 1975, this element of the game perturbed him.
“I didn’t like links golf at all,” Watson concedes. “I didn’t like the uncertainty of it. I played the ball through the air, very high. The biggest reason I played well, even though I didn’t like it early on, was my ability to get the ball up and down. I first played St Andrews in 1978 and didn’t like it at all; blind, bumpy, it was not a lot of fun for me because of the uncertain bounces.
“I fought it all the time. ‘I don’t like this, I don’t like playing like this.’ I didn’t say that. I kept it to myself. You don’t whine. You never whine.”
A social trip with a close friend in 1981 altered that perspective. Watson played at Ballybunion, Prestwick, Troon and Dornoch. His links outlook suddenly changed.
Four years earlier he had triumphed over Nicklaus in Turnberry’s epic Duel in the Sun. “That was the time in my career that I finally believed I could beat the best in the game,” Watson recalls. “It started a run.”
And yet an element of self-doubt remained. “I really didn’t learn to swing the golf club properly until 1994,” Watson says. “All those years, it was searching for something that would work on any given week.”
Fast forward to 2009 and one of those links nuances which initially frustrated Watson so much cost him what would have been a quite incredible Open victory, again on the Ayrshire coast. “This ain’t a funeral,” was his opening gambit to the assembled solemn members of the media in the aftermath. Privately Watson was sore.
“It doesn’t hurt now,” he says. “At the time it was really disheartening. I didn’t get much sleep that Sunday night. I was there, I had the opportunity to do it. I think winning the Open Championship that many times before that year tempered it. If that was my only chance it probably would have stuck with me. But it didn’t stick with me.”
Watson’s rivalry with Nicklaus was the finest in golfing history. The former is perfectly placed then to discuss whether the rivalry currently hailed between Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth is worthy of the title.
“Right now Rory is the best player in the game,” Watson says. “Jordan, as he said, ‘I can’t put myself in a rivalry position just now. I haven’t achieved what Rory has.’
“It is very close to being in that category and people want to see it. It is a rivalry but you have to understand how competitors play. I didn’t go out particularly wanting to beat Jack Nicklaus. But I tell you what, I was always looking at the scoreboard to see if Jack’s name was there. I like Jordan’s adult take on things and his commonsense. He is level-headed. And he is a heck of a player.
I like when he doesn’t play well, you can see it. You can see how upset he gets with himself. That’s the way I was, I hated playing badly. That just makes you play better. You go to the practice tee, work on it, and get better. Jordan will have lulls in his career just like everybody else has and what defines you is how you deal with those challenges. Not the victories, the defeats.”
The eight-times major winner shrugs off the circumstances of McIlroy’s injury in a football match. “I thought it was kind of stupid to do that but I was stupid, too. I was skiing and diving for loose balls on basketball courts when I was his age. You have a life to live, you have things to do in your life. It’s not all golf.”
Watson’s last competitive appearance in Scotland was a troubled one. The United States lost the Ryder Cup and there was post-match rancour between Watson and Phil Mickelson.
“It is water under the bridge,” Watson insists. “The team was outplayed. I think everybody realises that. You look at the scores, the Europeans were 56 more under par than we were. You don’t win when you are that far behind, you just don’t.”
That love for the heat of battle has never left Watson. It is the reason a St Andrews goodbye isn’t certain. The man himself wouldn’t have it any other way.
Tom Watson is a MasterCard ambassador. Pay tribute to his remarkable career during his last appearance at the Open by tweeting your message using #HatsOffToTom @MasterCardUK
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