Laughing and joking, the group strives to play on the legendary field, steeped in the history of the Open Championship, does not escape their audience. This is Tom Watson, and few people and places are more associated with the Open than the 72-year-old and St. Andrews.
Watson, one of golf’s most iconic names, is a five-time major winner, and the Old Course at St. Andrews has hosted the Open more times than any other venue and will host its 150th tournament later this month.
Yet incredibly—and not out of a desire to try—Watson never picked up a claret pitcher in the course of historical references.
With eight major triumphs and 39 PGA Tour victories, the American is considered one of the greatest players in history. His five Open successes between 1975 and 1983 are second only to Harry Vardon’s (six) in all-time tournament wins, furthering his reputation as an outstanding golfer.
Had it not been for two agonizing second finishes, Watson would have eclipsed Vardon’s victory, but even during the first of those misses in 1984 at St. Andrews, he insists the record was not on his mind.
“I didn’t think about it,” Watson told CNN Sport. “My job is to play every toss until I finish it here at 18, and hopefully it will be the lowest result in a week.”
“Now I had to be a hero”
One hole away from closing in 1984, Watson’s job was almost done when he arrived at the infamous 17th hole in the road, sharing the lead with Sev Ballesteros.
His kickoff moved to the right, almost out of bounds, and stopped on a sloping mound. Thirty-eight years later, retracing his steps on the track, Watson can still spot the hump that caused him to attempt an all-or-nothing second shot.
“Now I had to be a hero. I was going to take a chance and make the perfect shot to win the Open Championship,” he recalled. “The rest is history, but the lie dictated the kick I tried to play there. I decided to play aggressively.”
Indeed, the story is as—recorded in one of golf’s great photographs—Watson was subsequently forced to play the most embarrassing lie just inches from the wall and watching fans. Despite having minimal backswing space, Watson jumped across the road onto the lawn with impressive effort.
However, while he was lining up an incredible long-range shot, his Spanish counterpart, a hole ahead, was filming his own photo shoot that would soon become iconic.
“I heard the crowd roar,” Watson recalled when Ballesteros celebrated his stunning 18th-place curling birdie with a legendary punching celebration.
Watson was scared before parrying at the end to seal Ballesteros’ fourth big win, who again took the Open Championship in 1988.
“I knew I had a really good chance of winning”
Watson will never be that close to St Andrews again – 31st in 1995 was his best subsequent finish – but came close to an incredible win elsewhere in 2009.
At 59, he stunned the world in Turnberry, Scotland, throwing 65, 70 and 71 shots to lead the championship on Sunday with four fewer shots. This allowed him to break the record for the oldest major winner set by 48-year-old Julius Boros at the 1968 PGA Championship (and surpassed by 50-year-old Phil Mickelson in 2021) by 18 holes.
Thirteen years later, Watson said he “didn’t give a damn” about the feat, but did feel the pressure of playing at the event.
“I was nervous because I knew I had a really good chance of winning,” he admitted.
Rebounding superbly off two ghosts on the first three holes, Watson hit the penultimate hole to reach 18th par-four, who needed to pass compatriot Stuart Sink to secure the win.
After a perfect tee drive, he was in the center of the fairway, and Watson still believes that he made the “perfect” approach. However, as in 1984, the elements were not on his side, as the ball landed comfortably on the lawn, only to skim past the flag and land on sloping tall grass.
“I had a strong wind blowing against my back and when I hit the gust was even stronger and I think most of the ball flying over the green was just extra gust,” he said.
Watson put the chip on the field, but his failure to convert the ensuing 10-footer led to a four-hole playoff. Sink stormed home to victory with a pair of pars and birds, while Watson finished four over par.
It’s not a funeral, you understand? Watson joked at the start of his press conference, although he added that the loss had “torn” his insides. However, in the end, the agonizing slip did not lessen his love for the game.
“I am a golfer, I play the game to make a living. How easy is life? he said.
“I wanted to be the best golfer I could be. If that was enough to defeat everyone else, so be it.”
Watching the camaraderie of a group of enthusiasts on the first hole only reinforces Watson’s thoughts, but also awakens another feeling – the lack of excitement of the competition.
“I love being around the people I’ve met over the years on the tournament floors,” he said. “But when there’s a competition, I’d rather be on the golf course than hang out under a tree in Augusta or on the patio here.
“I want to be there – you’ll never lose that.”