Tom Watson Farewell
Ten years ago, Jack Nicklaus crossed the Swilcan Bridge for the final time in competition. To rapturous applause and cheers, the 18-time major champion ended his storied playing career in the sunshine of St. Andrews with a birdie on the iconic final hole of the Old Course. It was the fitting finale.
There was tangible emotion emanating across the incredible setting of the ‘town holes’ on the most historic course on the planet. Not least from Nicklaus’ most significant playing partner that day, Tom Watson, who was teary eyed and emotionally overwhelmed at witnessing the farewell of his friend and long-time competitor.
Though Watson’s thoughts were obviously with the game’s most decorated champion on that memorable Friday afternoon, perhaps there was an inner-realisation that is own curtain call was also imminent.
As they crossed the famous bridge, after a succession of photographs, Nicklaus encouraged the tearful Watson to refocus on playing the last hole, with a par ensuring that the younger of the two legends would make the halfway cut. Tom did just that after being reminded by Jack that he had “some golf left to play”.
And my, he certainly did.
Four years later, at Turnberry, the site of Watson’s most famous victory over Nicklaus in the memorable and enthralling ‘Duel in the Sun’, he rolled back the years to place himself on the precipice of potentially winning the championship for a sixth time.
It was a surreal, incredible week for all who were there to see it. Leading the Open after 54-holes at the age of 59, Watson’s performance defied all sense of conventional logic, as he expertly negotiated his way around the spectacular Ayrshire links with a succession of well struck shots and holed putts to roll the years back to 1977.
Having found the fairway with his drive on the final hole, with the sun beating down on his back, it seemed that the unthinkable, the unimaginable would actually happen. 32-years-later, Tom Watson was once again leading the Open Championship on the 72nd hole at Turnberry.
However, despite striking his approach imperiously through the air, an unexpected gust of wind and firm bounce would shatter the dream, with the ball running through the green. The cheer from the crowd abruptly transformed into a deafening groan of anxiety and disappointment. It was a crushing sensation.
After missing a putt to complete the most remarkable of sporting tales, a deflated Watson struggled in the subsequent playoff against compatriot Stewart Cink. It was one of those rare instances when the runner-up overshadowed the eventual and deserving champion.
“It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn't it? It would have been a hell of a story. It wasn't to be.” – Tom Watson
With a reduction in the age limit for former champions, it was widely expected that Watson’s final appearance in the championship would come at St. Andrews in 2010. However, in recognition of his stunning effort at Turnberry, the R&A rightly created a new exemption category to accommodate Watson for another five years.
Afforded that extra time, he continued to set benchmarks and make special memories on the British seaside.
In 2011, at the age of 61, Watson became the oldest player to ever make the cut in the game’s most dated championship, as he battled through the difficult conditions at Royal St. Georges to finish in a more than admirable tie for 22nd. It was an exhibition of his proficiency in bad weather.
He would later twice beat his own record at Lytham St. Annes in 2012 and at last year’s championship at Royal Liverpool, which had been anticipated to be the site of his final appearance.
However, the eight-time major champion requested that he be given the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Nicklaus and complete his Open career at the Home of Golf. It was granted.
And now, a decade on from Jack’s day, it is Tom’s turn.
After 40 years and five victories, the 144th Open Championship will be the last one of Watson’s incredible career. Though it will be a celebration of a great career, there will be more than a tinge of sadness in the aftermath of his final curtain-call at St. Andrews. It will be the end of a great relationship.
For Watson, it all began at Monifieth. Practicing on the traditional Angus course before his debut appearance in the Open at nearby Carnoustie, the then 25-year-old found the experience of playing links golf extremely irksome, with, what he thought was a perfect opening drive, finishing up in a faraway bunker that wasn’t visible from the tee. Welcome to Scotland, Tom.
However, despite his apparent distaste for the challenge, Watson would stunningly win his first major at Carnoustie, after defeating Australia’s Jack Newton in an 18-hole playoff. It was the beginning of a special connection between player and championship, man and nation.
Victories at Turnberry, Muirfield, Royal Troon and Royal Birkdale secured Watson’s status as being the greatest links exponent to ever emerge from the United States. A triumph on the Old Course remained elusive, however, with a narrow loss to Seve Ballesteros in 1984 denying Watson a third consecutive win.
It is almost hard to believe now that Watson had at one time so disliked the vagaries and demands of seaside golf. He took issue with the unpredictability of the bounces, and having to play the ball along the ground, which contrasted markedly with what he had been accustomed to in the United States.
It wasn’t until 1981 (when he had already won three Opens) that Watson’s relationship with links golf progressed from a grudging respect into genuine love. On a trip with friend (and former USGA President) Sandy Tatum, the five-time Open champion’s eyes were opened by visits to Ballybunion, Prestwick and Royal Dornoch, the latter he described as being “the most fun I ever had playing golf”.
Watson’s popularity in the birthplace of golf has endured throughout this time. Winning four Open Championships on Scottish soil will have unquestionably contributed to that, but his approach to the game has resonated with the public over here. There is no pretence to his golf. No fuss. He simply gets on with it.
It would have been regrettable had Watson’s final act in Scotland been his ill-fated and contentious captaincy at last year’s Ryder Cup. That week at Gleneagles perhaps highlighted some of the more complicated aspects of the 65-year-old’s personality, but the affection from the grandstands won’t be diminished this week.
As he returns to play an Open Championship on the Old Course for the eighth and last time, his ambition is to go one step further than Nicklaus did and make the cut in his final bow. He desires to make that fateful last walk across the Swilcan Bridge on Sunday. You wouldn’t bet against him.
Farewell, Tom Watson. Forever THE Open Champion.
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