Tom Watson will bid his farewell to St Andrews this week, as he’s most likely playing in his last Open Championship at the Home of Golf. It’s been 40 years since Watson made his first start at golf’s oldest major in 1975, which he ended up winning at Carnoustie.
The five-time Open champion and arguably the greatest links golfer in the modern era actually did what he thought was his last walk up the 18th hole in competition when the Open was last held at St Andrews in 2010. Even though the 65-year-old legend has never won on the Old Course, it was a special moment that I’ll never forget, as he received a rousing ovation from his adoring fans and doffed his cap to them before chipping in for eagle on what was believed to be his final Open at the Home of Golf.
Former champions are exempt until they are 60, but the R&A created a new exemption after Watson finished runner-up at the 2009 Open at Turnberry when he was 59 and lost in a playoff to Stewart Cink. Now, past champions that placed in the top 10 are exempt for five (more) years. Last year’s edition of the Open at Royal Liverpool was supposed to be Watson’s final Open, though the R&A once again extended a special exemption to him last summer, so that he could end his storied Open career at St Andrews.
Watson isn’t completely ruling out the possibility that this will be his last Open, but he knows the chances are slim.
“Now it’s time for my final Open Championship here at St. Andrews,” said Watson in his opening comments in his press conference Wednesday. “This will be it. I don’t expect to probably end up in the top 10. It would be nice if I ended up in the top 10, to be able to extend five more years. I don’t foresee that, although I’m playing pretty well.
“I kind of just hope that I make it to Sunday. When you get to that position in your career, you’re just hoping to make it to Sunday. Then it’s really time to hang them up.”
Watson, one of the hardest characters in the game, won’t make his last trip around St Andrews without a good fight, though.
“I’m out here to compete in The Open Championship,” he said. “I’ve prepared right. I’ve prepared properly. I’m doing some things right. I’ve got a game plan. I’m always prepared, and I’m going to compete just like I’ve always competed. I’ve never stopped competing that way, ever.
“It’s not a ceremony at all. I’m still trying to compete against these players out here. The other part of it is the final walk over the Swilcan Bridge. If it’s Friday, it’s Friday, and if it’s Sunday, it’s Sunday. I’ll be walking over the bridge with my son Michael on the bag, which will be a very special time, and I hope I’m fighting for the top 10 going across that bridge.
“That’s what I hope. But in reality if I’m not, it’ll be a great final walk, and I’ll be — you know, I’ve done it before. I’ve done that final walk before, and it’s deja-vu all over again, like Yogi Berra said.”
Watson also announced that next year’s Masters would be his final start at Augusta National.
“I am not going to play any more after that,” said Watson, a two-time Masters champion. “Even though I will be eligible to play, I won’t play. The golf course is too big for me, and with my declining skills and length, I won’t be playing that.
“As I said a few weeks ago, the toolbox is kind of half empty with the tools I used to be able to play good golf. Those tools are missing right now or pretty rusty, rusty like me. That’s kind of where I am.”
In April, Watson opened the Masters with a dazzling one-under 71, his best score at Augusta National in some time, but then he followed it with an 81 to miss the cut.
“When you shoot 81, it’s time to say goodbye,” said Watson. “It truly is. Ben (Crenshaw, who said his farewell to the Masters this year) was — that was part of the decision, I think, not to do (it) the same year as Ben, but I knew my time was coming six, eight years ago at Augusta.
“I couldn’t carry the ball far enough to play that golf course. You have to carry the ball on holes like 7, 14, 17. Couldn’t carry the ball far enough to hit the greens in regulation. Just couldn’t do it. No tools. It’s part of the tools that are missing.”
Asked if St Andrews would stand the test of modern equipment, Watson, the elder statesman, didn’t think twice before answering, saying with a wry, knowing smile, “You ought to ask that question after Saturday. You’ll see this course take its toll (on the players).”
The forecast on Friday calls for heavy rain and strong winds, with gusts exceeding 40mph in the afternoon. The gale-force winds are expected to continue into Saturday.
“Listen, the biggest defense of a golf course are the greens and the firmness of the greens,” said Watson. “If you have firm greens, you can defend a golf course because you can put the flag behind someplace where nobody can stop the ball close enough to the flag to make a birdie. If they’re soft, you can’t defend the golf course. I don’t care how long you make it.
“But you’re going to add a 30 to 40 mile-an-hour wind on Friday, you’ll see a lot of scores in the 80s. Equipment doesn’t matter. When you have that type of wind, equipment doesn’t help you a whole hell of a lot.”
Watson’s press conference wouldn’t be complete if someone hadn’t asked about his relationship with Phil Mickelson ever since the most awkward yet most amusing presser after the U.S. Ryder Cup team, captained by Watson, lost to the Europeans again. As if you don’t remember, Mickelson, who sat out both matches Saturday at Gleneagles, spoke out on behalf of the team, blasting Watson’s leadership and decision-making.
“It was disappointing,” said Watson, referring to Mickelson’s comments. “Phil was very disappointed about not being able to play. It was kind of sour grapes. That’s understandable, and we just got waxed, the whole team, and the disappointment was just there. We let our hearts talk for us.
“You know, I did everything — as I said, I did everything I possibly could in my own mind with the help of my captains and the PGA to do everything possible to have us win, and it just wouldn’t — the other team was better. And we had a chance to win it on the last day, and we had them tied or — with all the matches on the board, we were up in the whole match, if the matches ended that way. We got off to the start that I asked them to do that previous night. We were in the right position there. Just didn’t carry on.”
Watson added that he and Mickelson have been cordial and they said hello to each other last night at the past champions’ dinner.