Tom Watson at the age of 65 will play his last ever Open Championship this week at St Andrews. It marks the end of an unbelievable record at what is known to many as the hardest test of golf each year.
Born in Kansas City in 1949 he had a very promising amateur career and went on to the PGA tour in 1971 but got his first of 71 professional wins in 1974 at the Western Open. From there his career took off and in 1975 his love affair with the Open began. As his first time playing in the Open he had no great expectations of winning at Carnoustie but he found himself on the 72nd hole with a putt to birdie and tie the lead on nine under. He drained the putt and won the playoff by one shot to win his first of 8 majors in total.
A quiet year in ’76 preceded a magnificent year in 1977, where Golf was dominated by the rivalry between Watson and the great Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus had 18 major championships but was denied by Watson at both Masters and The Open. At the Masters Watson showed an incredible amount of guts and nerve. With two holes remaining the two Americans were tied for the lead but Watson came out on top, birdieing the penultimate hole and applying the pressure which lead Nicklaus to struggle and allowing Watson to win by 2 shots. On its own it was a memorable tournament but it was nothing on what was to follow at the Open the same year.
The 1977 Open Championship at Turnberry is often said to be one of the greatest tournaments of all time. The aptly nicknamed ‘Duel in the Sun’ showed not only how close it was between the two golfers but also how far ahead they both were from the rest of the field. The pair were so closely matched all week that they actually had the exact same scores for the first three rounds 68-70-65. It all then came down to the final round. Like at the Masters it was level between the two after the 16th, Nicklaus holing a 35ft putt on the 18th it was a much better finish than a few months earlier at Augusta. However, once again Watson held his nerve with a birdie on 17 and even watching Jack hole his putt on 18 he finished up with another birdie to avoid a play-off and winning the duel in the sun. It was an unbelievable finish and with Nicklaus finishing 10 shots ahead of the next player behind, showed the brilliance of both players.
Going into the 1980’s Watson’s major winning form returned. He had not won since the duel in the sun but a trip back to Scotland at Muirfield Golf Club saw him back with a vengeance, winning by his largest major winning margin of 4 shots. In the next 3 years Watson would go on to win another 4 majors, including another Masters, his one and only US Open title and two more Open Championships. He was particularly useful in Scotland, only his last victorious Open championship was played in England which may show how adept he was to playing in the toughest of conditions.
What I will always remember of Watson though, is not the various victories back in the 70s and 80s where he was at his peak, but the 2009 Open Championship.
Watson at 59 years of age was not anywhere near the favourite, the bookies would have been offering huge odds for him to win. However, showing that age and experience can beat youth and exuberance, he was joint leader after the second round and leading outright by one going into the last round. Almost every golf fan in the world was willing him to do the impossible and win the championship. Unfortunately for one of the nicest guys in golf he could not hold on to his lead and went into a play off which he would struggle and lose to Stewart Cink for his first and only major. It was an amazing display from the man from Missouri who showed not only his great golfing ability but his classy and calm persona.
Tom Watson is a true legend of the game, he showed in this modern period, which is dominated by distance, that accuracy and short game control can prevail. He was never the longest of hitters, even in his prime but he could get up and down from almost everywhere and therefore you would always fancy him to avoid a bogey or worse. It is sad that one of the greats of the game will not be on the BBC again at an Open week. At the time of writing, on the Thursday evening, Watson carded a four over 76 so he is unlikely to make it to the weekend, but we can hope for another Watson miracle. He’s a wonderful servant to the game of golf and will be sorely missed, and no competition will he be missed more than the Open Championship.