ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Though Tom Watson has said this before, it boggles the mind that there was a time in his life when he despised the links-style golf that would make him famous.
The first time he played the Old Course here at St. Andrews in 1978, he loved the place but loathed the golf ... and that was not only because he went into the final day tied for the lead and then, after the wind dramatically shifted, shot a 76 to fall out of contention.
No, there was something about this links golf that disagreed with his sensibilities. Golf, as he understood it then, is the fairest test of them all. It is supposed to be a game about justice. You call your own penalties. You settle your own nerves. You live with your own mistakes. The ball must be played as it lies.
In return, though, he thought the game should play fair too, which is to say that well-struck shots should turn out well and poorly struck shots should be punished.
That, too often, is not how it goes on the links courses. On the links, well-struck shots sometimes kick off mounds into pot bunkers. Bad shots sometimes skip into a perfect lie. Some balls roll into impossible places in the bunker, leaving no shot at all, while others settle into nice, comfortable areas and leave easy ups and downs. There are no trees to miss, no tight fairways to hit and the wind, lord, the Scottish wind has a mind of its own, turning and gusting and dying at its own unpredictable whims. Tom Watson liked to hit his ball high in those days, high and soft, and the Scottish wind would bat it around for fun.
“Too much was left to chance,” Watson says. “Too much came down to luck.”
He spits out the word “luck” the way a child says “homework” ... the very idea offends him. Golf shouldn’t be about luck. Or anyway, that’s what he thought all those years ago, when he was still a young man.
THEY CALL HIM "TOOM" here, or anyway that is how it sounds when he tees off for the final time at the Open Championship. The wind blows hard. Rain is in the air. “Toom!” they shout as he stripes his last drive down the wide first fairway. “We love you Toom!”
On his last trip around the Open Championship, Tom Watson wears a light blue sweater and his ubiquitous Adams baseball cap and the once youthful face that had been compared to Huck Finn has folded and crinkled.
On Thursday, he saw people wearing giant masks of his face, and they frightened him – it was like looking at age itself.
“Those are ugly masks ... too many wrinkles,” he said. “It kind of scared me looking at those things, like, ‘geez, look at those things. That guy is ugly.’”
They love him here in a way that, perhaps, he never did get loved back in the States. Part of the reason is obvious: Tom Watson won five Open Championships, more than any American, and he almost won a handful of others including the 2009 Open at Turnberry when he was 59 years old. He evolved into the greatest weather player of his time, a master of the wind, and when he was in full flight at the Open he was thrilling to watch, a whirring blur who walked fast and hit fast and played the game freely, fluidly, like a jazz musician improvising. When I wrote my book, “The Secret of Golf,” about Watson and his great rivalry with Jack Nicklaus, this was the thing that people in Scotland kept saying about him: Toom was an artist.
But there was something else they kept saying, something about how Watson carried himself like a Scot – friendly but distant, blunt but a little bit inscrutable. Americans often thought of Watson as hard to know. He wasn’t gregarious like Arnold Palmer, wasn’t legendary like Jack Nicklaus and wasn’t a comedian like Lee Trevino. He was, instead, principled, with all of the admirable and stodgy qualities that can come from such a personality.
But Scottish people saw themselves in him. They got his humor. They found their own intensity mirrored by him. They understood his humanity. At his first ever Open Championship in 1975, he played himself into a playoff with Jack Newton at Carnoustie. That morning, there was a knock on the door of the small house where he was staying in Monifieth. When he opened the door, he saw a small girl who was offering a piece of tin foil. Inside was a sprig of white heather.
There’s a Celtic folktale of a beautiful woman named Malvina who cried over purple heather when her husband was killed in battle. Her tears turned the purple heather white, which led her to pray: “May the white heather, symbol of my sorrow, bring good fortune to all who find it.” Watson beat Newton to win his first Open Championship. He carried the white heather in his bag for years.
The second time he won the Open was at Turnberry, 1977, the Duel in the Sun, where Watson and Nicklaus went back and forth in a furious final two days as the sun blazed down and sun-burned Scots scurried about in a frenzied daze. At the 16th hole, the gallery was so captivated and buzzed that officials had to stop play to calm things down. It was then that Watson looked over the scene and turned to Nicklaus:
“This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?” he said.
“You bet it is,” Nicklaus said.
In the third Open victory, at Muirfield in 1980, Watson ran away. The fourth time, at Royal Troon, he outlasted everyone by keeping it together on the final two brutal days. The fifth one was in England, at Royal Birkdale. And that was the last major championship he won.
But he kept coming back over here, year after year, and they watched him grow older as his pace slowed a little, as his drives rolled a little bit shorter, as his once brave putting lost its nerve. Then in 2009, they watched him almost pull off what would have been the greatest feat in the history of golf. He came to the final hole of the Open Championship at Turnberry with a one-shot lead. His second shot rolled just over the green, his par putt never scared the hole, and he lost in the playoff. He was despondent afterward, even as people reminded him of just how miraculous his near-victory had been. When he stepped out, though, he found a nation madly in love with him.
“The Scottish people,” he says, even now, with tears in his eyes. “The way they have treated me through the years ... it’s just very special.”
WATSON CAN NO LONGER play like Watson – if he could, he certainly would not be stopping. And because he cannot play like he once did, he was not sure how his final day would feel. As it goes, though, it’s a perfect Scottish day. Wind blows. Rain falls. More wind blows. It is unpredictable, at timeS even volatile, golf, with wicked bounces and surprising gusts. And now, Tom Watson loves it.
There’s a story that goes with it. After he had won three Open Championships, he went on his first tour of Scotland’s greatest golf courses. He went with his friend Sandy Tatum, the former president of the USGA, and they went to Prestwick and Ballybunion and, finally, to the old links course at Royal Dornoch, designed by Old Tom Morris himself. They were inside, draining a pint or two, when Watson heard rain. He looked out the window and saw that it was coming down sideways and in buckets.
“Tatum!” he shouted. And their eyes met.
“I’ll organize the caddies,” Tatum said happily.
They put on their rain suits and they went out into the driving rain and Watson, for the first time in his life, just let go. There was no fairness. No justice. No control. He could barely hit a shot it was raining so hard. He could hardly find his ball after he did hit it. It was utterly impossible, and for the first time Tom understood something: That was the whole point.
“That was the day,” he says, “that I fell in love with links golf.”
AT THE 18TH AND FINAL tee on Friday, Watson turns to his son and caddie Michael and says: “There are no tears. There’s only joy.”
All around him are the sounds of seagulls and the howl of the wind and fans shouting, “Thank you, Toom! Thank you!” The sky has darkened almost to blackness; most of the other players have already called it a night. A couple of holes earlier Watson had asked his playing partners, Ernie Els and Brandt Snedeker, if they wanted to quit and come back in the morning. The two men looked at each other.
“No,” Snedeker said. “Let’s finish this tonight.”
Watson cracks his drive and begins his final walk at the Open. No tears. He walks to the Swilcan Bridge, climbs up, and asks his playing partners to join him, the same way Jack Nicklaus had asked Watson to stand with him on his last Open walk. Then Tom stands with Michael. And then Tom stands alone, arms in the air, while the fans cheer. He looks over to the 18th green, and he sees the people who have waited for him, thousands of them, lined up all along the road, all waiting just to say good bye. He thinks of a story.
Not long after Bobby Jones won his Grand Slam, he came to St. Andrews to play a friendly round of golf. People heard he was there, then more people, and then more, until soon there were thousands of people standing around the 18th green hoping for just a glimpse of golf’s greatest champion. Watson knows that story because Watson’s life has been about golf, its tradition, its history, its stories. He heard many of those stories from his father Raymond, who taught Tom the game. He heard many of them from his teacher, Stan Thirsk, who pushed him to unexpected heights. He heard many of them from Byron Nelson, one of the greatest players of them all, who sort of adopted him. He heard many from his longtime caddie, Bruce Edwards, who understood him as almost no one else did.
And now, this story comes to him, and he thinks about Bobby Jones, and it connects him to the past. No tears. Just joy. He walks over to his ball, hoping desperately to hit his last shot pure. Instead, he shanks it, leaving it short of the green. No tears. He cannot play golf with the kids anymore, not at a course like St. Andrews. “That’s OK,” Michael would say. “He’s had his time.”
Snedeker and Els finish off to leave the stage to Watson, and the wind has picked up again, a few drops of rain fall, and Watson sets up to hit his shot. “Michael,” he says, “go hold the flag. I can’t see.” There is laughter. Michael holds the flag, and Tom hits it short. There are groans. He misses the par putt. There are groans again. He goes to 12 over par. But scores do not matter now. No tears.
“Hip hip hooray!” shout a few young men as Watson walks off the green. A few players – Matt Kuchar, Graeme McDowell and Tom Lehman – have waited to shake Tom’s hand. Watson’s wife Hillary gives him a hug. Hundreds of phone cameras point at Watson.
“I can’t believe,” Snedeker says to a few reporters, “that I got to play these last two days with my hero.”
Watson walks to the scorer’s tent. He is a very different man from the one who showed up in Scotland 40 years ago and was given a sprig of white heather, and won the Open for the first time. If you had asked him then about golf, he would have talked about justice and fairness. But he knows now that golf is not about that. No, golf is about being unconquerable. No one can beat the game. No one can birdie all 18 holes. No one can play their best every day. And no one can be a great player forever.
Tom and Michael came to St. Andrews with the hope of making the cut, finishing in the top 25, heck, maybe even shocking everyone and winning it like he almost did not so long ago. But it couldn’t end that way because, Watson understands now, golf is not about that.
“What is the biggest lesson you learned from golf?” Watson was asked. He thought about it for a few seconds, and though he didn’t want to cry, maybe a tear did bubble up in his eye.
“Humility,” he said.