Right until the very end Tom Watson was a gentleman.
Faced with playing the 18th in the gathering gloom, with the time approaching 10pm on Friday, he asked his playing partners if they fancied playing one or if they wanted to come back and finish it in the morning.
Ernie Els was on the cut line of level par, Brandt Snedeker was at three over and the five-times champion was 11 over and had long given up on the idea of coming back for the final two rounds. “Brandt and Ernie and I, we had a discussion, but I told them, I said: ‘Gentlemen, you’re both in the tournament right here. Whatever you want to do, you do. I’m not in the tournament.’
“Ernie looked at Brandt and said: ‘You want to finish?’ He said: ‘Yeah, I’d like to get it over with’. Ernie says: ‘I do, too’, and that’s all that was necessary to be spoken, and the official came up to us and said: ‘Do you want to finish’, and Brandt said: ‘Yeah, we’ll finish.’”
That Watson’s final tee shot was a shank and that three putts produced his fifth successive bogey was an irrelevance. The town of St Andrews had stayed out alongside the 18th fairway and green on a cold, unpleasant evening, with the gales that were to blight Saturday’s play picking up strength, to say its farewell and the veteran of 38 Opens seemed genuinely touched by their presence.
“When Bobby Jones had won the grand slam he came back and played a friendly here at the Old Course in St Andrews. I’m not putting myself in the same shoes as Bobby Jones but walking up that 18th hole, as the legend goes, Bobby Jones was engulfed by thousands of people who had come out and heard that he was on the golf course, and they watched him finish right there at the 18th hole,” Watson said. “And when I was going up there just across the road, I think I had an inkling of what Bobby Jones probably felt like when he walked up the 18th hole. Again, there’s just so much joy in walking up that hole.”
Watson said he would happily come back for the Champions Challenge, a four-hole event played on Wednesday afternoons at Old Course Opens (the 2010 version was cancelled due to the strong winds and rain, funnily enough) and which provided an uplifting curtain-raiser for the public and players alike. “We had 28 former Open champions come here and play in the four-hole event, and that was really special, to be able to see these people – you’ve got Peter Thomson and Arnold Palmer here, and it was really special to see those, and I hope the young men who were at that dinner had a chance to talk with them or listen to them speak about the game of golf the way it was.”
Watson also remembered the people who had helped him during his winning years, the late Alfie Fyles, who carried the bag and had an input for all five of his Open victories, and the late Bruce Edwards, who did the same for him in the US tournaments, where he picked up his other three majors, two Masters and a US Open.
Fyles, incidentally, was one of the Birkdale band of caddies one of whom was tasked with getting up at the crack of dawn to log the pin positions for the caddyshack and they were pre-eminent in their day, travelling together to tournaments around the UK and over for the Irish Open, and even to the US from time to time. He picked up Watson’s bag on spec at Carnoustie in 1975 having arrived at the links without a player and also caddied for Gary Player when the South African won the 1968 Open at Carnoustie. His brother Albert, incidentally, was on the bag for Tom Weiskopf’s win at Troon in 1973 and also worked for Tom Kite; Teddy Halsall did the honours for Johnny Miller at Birkdale itself in 1976 and Bobby Leigh carried for Peter Thomson and Greg Norman among others.
This week Watson’s son Michael did the job and the 65-year-old said the young man was more caught up in the emotion of the final walk than he was himself. “There were no tears, not a single one,” he said. “My son almost cried, I know that. He almost cried on the 18th tee when I said no tears. But no, there weren’t. As I say, I didn’t know how I was going to feel walking across the [Swilcan] bridge, but I do know that I looked up in the sky, and I said: ‘I know there are a lot of other people watching me from not just right here, and I … a lot of loved ones.’ It was a special time. Now it’s time to get on to the real golf tournament.”
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