Tom Watson: Legend of the links

The duel is won: Tom Watson celebrates his famous victory in the 1977 [British] Open
The duel is won: Tom Watson celebrates his famous victory in the 1977 [British] Open

Tom Watson hoisted aloft the Claret Jug five times over a short span of nine years, which is a record. Of the five golfers to have won the [British] Open at least five times, Scotsman James Braid is next in terms of time efficiency, taking 10 years to accumulate his quintet between 1901 and 1910.

It is all the more surprising then, that Watson—the most prolific of Open Championship golfers—didn’t like the Open’s customary brand of links golf until he had won the championship three times. To clarify: Watson says he didn’t like links golf.

I didn’t like links golf and I was not a fan of St Andrews

“I didn’t like links golf and I was not a fan of St Andrews because of all the blind shots and the luck of the bounce,” admits Watson, 65, who won on his Open debut at Carnoustie in 1975. “I was an ‘American golfer’ who wanted to hit the ball through the air and then stop the ball quickly. Links golf didn’t fit into that paradigm.

“I changed my mind during the Open Championship of 1979. I was not playing well at Royal Lytham and I was blaming the golf course and blaming links golf for my poor play, which was not the truth obviously; the blame lay with my poor play. I finally figured out that my poor attitude was holding me back. Even though I had won a couple of Open Championships I still had not embraced links golf. In 1979 I told myself to stop fighting the golf course and start enjoying it.”

Watson’s conversion was sealed in 1981, when he made a pre-Open trip with good friend Sandy Tatum, a former president of the United States Golf Association, touring some of the finest and oldest links in Ireland and Scotland.

“First we played Ballybunion,” recalls Watson, “then Royal Troon and Prestwick, and then we went up to Royal Dornoch, and on that trip it grew on me, and I finally started to fully embrace the links game.”

A year later, in July 1982, Watson won his fourth Open Championship back at Royal Troon.


Lighting up Turnberry

The 1977 [British] Open Championship—the first to be staged upon the stunning landscape of Turnberry, on Scotland’s southwest coast—was strikingly, vividly, the epitome of all that is great about the Open. That championship has gone down in golfing legend as ‘The Duel in the Sun’, and that is the title of the book written by Michael Corcoran on the ’77 Open. Corcoran writes:

“During a scorching hot week in July, Jack Nicklaus, by then regarded as the best player the game had ever known, fought furiously with Tom Watson, a talented and cerebral young man bent on joining Nicklaus in the upper echelon of the game. Playing together over two days and 36 holes, they distanced themselves from the rest of the field to such a degree that they were competing solely against each other. At stake was the game’s oldest and most sought after title, the Open Championship, and Nicklaus’s position as the world’s dominant player. The outcome would be decided in the oldest way known to man: face to face.”

Jack was the man who I pointed to as the one to beat, he was the best in the game and I wanted to beat the best

“Jack was the man who I pointed to as the one to beat,” reflects Watson, 38 years later. “I studied and observed Jack over the years and I learned an awful lot. He was the best in the game and I wanted to beat the best.”

With the Irish Sea as their blue yonder backdrop, and played out on the hard-baked links—just the way Open governors the R&A like it—Nicklaus and Watson were both at their most potent. Playing together they both shot 65, five under par, in the third round, the low score in the field, to earn the final tee time in the final round, tied for the lead.

In the final round they went at it again, relentlessly exchanging birdie blows in an exhilarating battle. Ultimately, Watson carded 65 to Nicklaus’s 66, and the ‘Kansas City kid’ won the Open for the second time.

“Walking off that final green,” recalls Watson, “Jack grabbed me around the neck and said: ‘Tom, I gave you my best shot but it wasn’t good enough. Congratulations, I’m proud of you.’ That is what this great golfer said to me in defeat, and that says so much about Jack Nicklaus. You know, he has always shown me great empathy. He understood the moment so well, and rather than see it from his own personal standpoint right then—when he was feeling a great sense of personal disappointment—he gave credit to his competitor. That shows a lot about the man’s character.”

It was an iconic moment of 20th century golf.

“Had I won, it would have been very special,” starts Nicklaus, in speaking exclusively to Majors. “A few years ago a reporter asked me what I remember most from the 1977 Open. I quickly answered, ‘I lost’. I laugh at it now, but it’s true. When you are someone who loves competition and who entered every major championship with the desire to win and with the belief he could, finishing second is not a consolation. Having said that, that kind of competition down the stretch of a major is something I relish. I gave Tom my best shot and he simply played better. When that happens, you reach out your hand and offer sincere congratulations.”

Turning back time: Tom Watson was a single shot away from winning the 2009 Open, back at Turnberry
Turning back time: Tom Watson was a single shot away from winning the 2009 Open, back at Turnberry

Incredibly, Watson was just a chip and a putt away from winning his sixth Open title in 2009 back at Turnberry, at the age of 59. It would probably have been the greatest swansong in the history of professional sport.

Watson was on the verge of becoming the oldest winner of a major by 11 years, but an eight-iron approach to the final green—which had seemed perfect in midair—rolled agonizingly through the green, and an ensuing bogey left Watson in a play-off. Ultimately finishing second behind Stewart Cink, Watson became the oldest runner-up in majors history by seven and a half years. Cink was gracious enough to say that even part of him wanted Watson to win that day.

So it is little wonder the R&A invited Watson to the 2015 Open (his official five-year exemption from pre-qualification, earned as runner-up in 2009, expired in 2014), particularly as golf’s oldest major returns to its spiritual home, to the Old Course at St Andrews, where the Open will be played for the 144th time.

“In the history of golf, the first chapter is written at St Andrews,” says Watson. “When I first stepped on the Old Course, when I stood on that first tee, I honestly could feel that history, going back to the 1800s and those early Open Championships. That first tee on the Old Course gives you an electricity. To know that you are competing on the Old Course in the Open Championship, as your fellow professional golfers did over 100 years ago, is a special feeling.”

A wave from the Bridge

Arnold Palmer bid farewell to the Open at St Andrews in 1995, and Nicklaus played his final tour event altogether there in the 2005 Open. Tradition now demands that retiring golfers pause on the ancient landmark of the Swilcan Bridge, which leads golfers onto the 18th fairway, to wave to the crowds.

“At the top of the arched bridge… memories were flooding my brain, and emotions were washing over me like you can’t imagine,” recalls Palmer, who began his Open career at St Andrews in 1960. “I was also thinking how it all seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. The magic of the British Open was as strong as it had ever been for me.”

In 2005, Nicklaus was grouped with Watson and Englishman Luke Donald as he played the 18th hole on the Old Course in an Open for the last time, although it was not Nicklaus who was overcome with emotion.

“By the time we got to the Swilcan Bridge I was crying like a baby,” laughs Watson. “Jack said to me: ‘Get a hold of yourself, Watson; you’ve still got to make the cut.’ (I needed a par to make the cut.) It was very special to play with Jack in his last official tournament.”

Nicklaus had a knack for birdying the final hole of tournaments, and his final attempt embellished the reputation.

“The putt broke left to right,” says Watson. “It was downhill—virtually an impossible putt—but when the ball was still 10 feet from the hole I knew that Nicklaus had done it again. Typical Nicklaus; he could always do the impossible.”

For the record, Watson did secure his par in 2005 to make the cut, but this year it is his turn to pause upon the Swilcan Bridge.

“Tom and I shared a special moment when I finished my career,” adds Nicklaus. “I know he feels the same as I do about St Andrews and it holds a special place in his heart. Tom’s legacy in the British Open is as great as anyone’s in history. He won five times and Harry Vardon won six. James Braid, JH Taylor and Peter Thomson also won five, but Tom’s victories came in the modern era and with arguably the game’s toughest fields. That is not taking anything away from any other champions; they were all tremendous players. I just believe that for Tom to beat the people he did under those conditions, in my opinion his legacy has been cemented as the greatest to play in the British Open.”

To clarify, while 2015 may see Watson’s last tilt for the Open, he is not retiring. Should he finish in the top 10 at St Andrews, or win the 2015 Senior [British] Open Championship Presented by Rolex at Sunningdale (which will be staged the week after the Open), Watson will qualify for the 2016 Open at Royal Troon, where he won in 1982.

“I am fairly certain 2015 will be my final Open, but you never say ‘never’,” adds Watson. “If somehow I caught lightening in the bottle, I could be back.”

British OpenJack NicklausThe OpenTom Watson