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On Golf: Tom Watson, In the Gloaming

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On Golf: Tom Watson, In the Gloaming

Minivan Dad

The 65-year old man, his son caddying for him, walked up the enormous double fairway of the 1st and 18th holes at The Old Course in St. Andrews. A light breeze rippled his golf trousers and his hair as he and his playing companions, an old rival unbelievably competing to make the cut in The Open Championship at age 55, and a young Englishman reaching his prime, crossed the Swilcan Bridge. They paused for pictures, and then the golfer stood alone, basking in the glorious Scottish sunshine as the light frames the Royal and Ancient clubhouse behind him. The man walked up the 18th hole to the cheers of the throngs filling the grandstands, as the camera panned to the adjacent town where people were gathered on their balconies, crowding for a view of the final shots of the great champion’s Open career, at the home of golf. As a reward for their undying love over the decades, the man summoned his younger self, hit his second shot to the 18th green and, naturally, sank the curling birdie putt, sending the adoring crowd into a frenzy.

That’s how TV had it all scripted out for Jack Nicklaus. And that’s just how it happened, 10 years ago in the 2nd round of the 2005 Open Championship. The 55-year old who made the cut that day was Tom Watson. The same Tom Watson who, if it wasn't for an unlucky bounce of a perfectly struck 8-iron on the 18th hole of regulation, would have won The Open Championship at Turnberry four years later. When he was 59 years old. The Open Championship, not the Senior Open (which he had already won 3 times by then). The same Tom Watson who won The Open 5 times, and who, this Friday, likely finished out his remarkable Open Championship career. 

Tom Watson won The Open Championship 5 times, on 5 different courses (Carnoustie in 1975, Turnberry in 1977, Muirfield in 1980, Troon in 1982, and Birkdale in 1983). From 1975-1983, he was Nicklaus’s greatest rival, and there are those who would argue that for that period of time he, not Nicklaus, was the most dominant golfer on the planet. He won 8 Major Championships. He defeated Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977 in the “Duel in the Sun,” when the two men distanced themselves from the field and played together in the final pairing for both the 3rd and 4th rounds. Watson shot 65-65, Nicklaus 65-66. In 1982, he defeated Nicklaus at the US Open at Pebble Beach before winning at Troon. In 1984, Watson finished 2nd to Seve Ballesteros at St Andrews, the closest he came to winning at the Old Course. But then the putts stopped falling. He never won another Major, though for 71 1/2 holes in 2009 it appeared that he might.

Nicklaus as an older man has taken a page from Arnold Palmer and assumed the role of the kindly ambassador. He captained the Ryder Cup long ago and has avoided the ultra competitive forum it has become. He was the ceremonial leader in the development of the President’s Cup, having now given way to Fred Couples. His course design business is enormous. His equipment company was fair but had some success, as did his apparel company. His marriage and family have always been a public part of his persona, and continue to be. He was gracious as Tiger Woods chased his Major Championship total, and he has been publicly supportive of Tiger as he has disintegrated in front of our eyes. I don’t think any of us truly knows what Jack Nicklaus thinks when he is alone at night, but that has been by design. He is a canvas on which we paint our version of Gracious Elder Statesman.

Watson? Notsomuch. His personal story is not quite the same as Jack’s. He says what’s on his mind, and by most accounts, he can be a little… prickly. He battled alcohol demons and his first marriage ended in divorce. His beloved caddie, Bruce Edwards, succumbed to ALS. He was openly critical of Tiger’s on-course behavior. (Right or wrong, it’s unusual for anyone in the golf sphere to openly criticize Woods for anything, at least until the last couple of years, and it didn’t make him any new friends.) He captained a losing Ryder Cup team this past season, and appeared to be at odds with several of the players, specifically Phil Mickelson. On the golf course, though, his full swing remains as reliable and repeatable as anyone’s since Ben Hogan. There, he seems totally at peace, goofy gap-toothed grin and all.

It had been Watson who had tears in his eyes in 2005 while Nicklaus twinkled and smiled for the crowd, and he was clearly emotional Friday night. There was no farewell birdie for Watson, though. After a wonderful 18th tee shot, he appeared to shank his half-wedge to the right from an ideal position in the left fairway, into the Valley of Sin that fronts the 18th. His putt up the hill wasn’t, as they say, struck with authority, and then he missed his par putt short and right, just as he had missed the putt that would have given him the 2009 Championship. He shrugged a resigned shrug, and tapped in his bogey. I wouldn't know if he thought of Jack’s 2005 birdie or not. Everyone else certainly did, because the two scenes could not have been more different.

It looked something like midnight in Scotland (actually it was closer to 10pm) when Watson, Ernie Els and Brandt Snedeker reached the 17th and 18th holes at the end of the 2nd round. The tournament had been delayed by torrential rains in the morning, so instead of finishing up to full bleachers and spectators hanging out of hotel rooms, Watson walked up the 18th fairway to the cheers of a crowd of people on The Links Road adjacent to the course, and maybe a thousand (give or take) people in the bleachers at the 18th green. The entire adjacent 1st tee grandstand was empty, and there was no one in the seats in the TV background as he teed off on the 18th tee. The Royal and Ancient clubhouse was illuminated by its facade lights, its members out on the steps in their formal dinner dress. It even looked dark on TV, and you got the feeling that they would have brought in cars with their headlights on like the old sandlot football days just to let Watson finish his round in the gloaming instead of having him come out at 7am in Scotland (2am Eastern US) to complete his final hole. 

I’m sure Watson was thrilled to have his now-stable family there, and his son Michael on his bag. I’m sure he would have appreciated a big crowd at the end, like Jack and Arnold and even Nick Faldo got (in his GodAwful sweater from his 1990 Open victory at St. Andrews), and the warm sunshine on his face. Instead, he was playing in the dark, for the R&A members and the fans who cared enough about golf to show up late, in a cold wind at the end of a delayed round, to watch him walk the 17th and 18th holes.

Some fans probably feel that Tom Watson didn’t get a grand enough sendoff from the Swilcan Bridge. Really, though, it was fitting. Those who were there are Watson people. The dedicated fans, the purists who love that he never used a long putter, or a saw grip, even though he’s had the putting yips for years. The people who marvel at his continued full-swing perfection. Most of all, the people who still, for no reason, occasionally find themselves thinking “Crap, I so wish Tom Watson had won that Open at Turnberry at 2009.” For the record, I’m one of those people.

I’d like to think that after 40 years of embracing the vagaries of chance and luck that define Open Championship golf, this farewell seemed somehow more genuine. I’d like to think that Tom Watson doesn’t need an orchestrated moment in the sun. I’d like to think that for Tom Watson, the Duel in the Sun will do.