Tom Watson Relishes Another Chance to Compete at St Andrews
Five-time Open champion Tom Watson may be fast approaching his 69th birthday, but that hasn’t stopped the Kansas City-native from enjoying a winning streak on the golf course. Of sorts. Back in April, he memorably became the oldest winner of the Masters Par 3 Contest, and on Tuesday he won the Senior Open Pro-Am at St Andrews. Joking about that fact, the legendary American nonetheless believes that there is a possibility that he could finally accomplish something that he is yet to achieve during his celebrated career – triumphantly holding a trophy aloft on the Old Course.
“I played a very good round yesterday and I was very happy with the way I was playing, putting. Who knows? Something good might happen here,” the twice US Ryder Cup captain said before this senior major championship makes its long-awaited debut at the Home of Golf.
“Right now, I feel, you know, pretty confident with it, about my form. My form's pretty good.”
Many of the most iconic figures in the game have made the pilgrimage to Fife – including Sir Nick Faldo and 73-year-old three-time US Open winner Hale Irwin – and Watson is not immune to the charms of this atmospheric town, having seen much change since his first appearance in 1978.
“St. Andrews is my favourite venue because of the town's right here on the 18th hole,” he said. “The town, of course, at ten o'clock at night in 2015 they all came out of the pubs to see some old has-been finish up his Open Championship career here.”
Referencing his final appearance in the major he made his own between 1975 and 1983 – lifting the Claret Jug at Carnoustie, Turnberry, Muirfield, Troon and Birkdale. But the revered Old Course proved elusive when it came to titles, as Watson lost out to an inspired Seve Ballesteros in 1984. “I always remember what Jack [Nicklaus] said. He said, ‘Your career is not complete unless you've won an Open Championship at St. Andrews.’ In a sense, he's right. This is the oldest venue in golf. It would have been nice to have that feather in my cap. I can't complain. I've got a few of them.”
Watson’s many successes include being a twice-winner of the Masters and fending off Nicklaus to triumph in the US Open at Pebble Beach in 1982, but his proficiency for links golf is what will define his legacy – particularly on this side of the Atlantic. Notably, despite his record, Watson’s appreciation for the ancient form of the game took a while to fully embed itself, but it’s a challenge he relishes in his golden years with the firm and fast conditions giving him a chance to compete, as he prepares to once again face the unique subtleties of the Old Course.
“This course is hard to understand. A lot of blind shots. We have the luxury of having the yardage books with a photograph of the tee shot from our tee, like this, and it delineates the line -- the right edge of the left bunker and the left edge of the right bunker, it shows you the blindness, and exactly the line to take to prevent that.
“Even as many times as I've played it here, it still takes extra time to be certain before I pull a club in the bag, okay, this is the club, and this is how I want to hit it. Most of the time, I ask my caddie, what is it, and he says, 178. Okay. I know the club and the shot I'm going to hit.
“Here, you have to think about it. You have to think about where you want to land it, where the knob is, where the valley is, where is the best place to leave it, more so than most any other course.”
Since first coming here in 1978, Watson has seen many changes to the town and the famous layout itself.
“In 1978 there wasn't much here in the town,” he reflected. “The restaurants, the various things, it was pretty closed down at night. Not a lot going on. Now there's a lot going on here, and it's fun. My stepdaughter, she got a chance to sing in one of the pubs.
“(The course) has been made easier because they have taken all that gorse out. The first time I saw it, they had a lot of gorse on the Old Course. They have taken most of it out. You had to worry about the gorse -- to the right of No. 4, back in the old days, I would hit it over the mound in the left there and I would hit it far enough to get it in the fairway, but I can't do that from the tee we're playing.”
Tees have been extended beyond the limits of the Old – indeed encompassing the Eden Course, Himalayas Putting Green and St Andrews Links Academy – and the 11th green was altered to cope with modern speeds, with recent championships blighted with the breeze from the Eden Estuary causing a suspension of play.
All of these efforts have been made to ensure that the Old Course remains competitive for the players of today, armed with the many physical, technical and equipment developments that would have been unthinkable back in the formative days of Old Tom Morris and Allan Robertson. However, progression in these areas has been a constant throughout centuries, as Watson noted himself before a captivated gathering of media.
“The biggest change in the game was the golf ball change, the biggest change. Equipment, yeah. You can say players swing faster because they work out and they are stronger, and they can swing faster, yeah, that's an element.
“You went from the feathery to the gutta to the rubber -- the Haskell. Then you went with the pure wound, the wound balls, and then you went with the solid, and then of course the two-piece ball. When Pro V1 came out, it changed. It's 29 yards different, 384 balata and 2001 Pro V1. So, you had drives on 14 holes, that's 400 yards. You add the extra distance you get with the irons, another hundred yards maybe, so 500 yards shorter. You're playing a golf course 500 yards shorter playing with that ball versus the best-ball in the market.”
Those deeper questions about the future of the game and its grandest stages is perhaps for another time, but for Tom Watson and the field, just being here in St Andrews is a prospect that has elevated the Senior Open and their anticipation for the week.
“I've seen an excitement level here; it's palpable. You can feel it. You can feel the players really loving to be here at the Old Course. We're very grateful that they decided to have the tournament.”
Though it may fall short of the definition that Jack Nicklaus and the late Bobby Jones established, Watson’s career is more complete than most. But perhaps there is one final celebratory chapter to come. Now, wouldn’t that be a story?
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