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Watson at Turnberry

Watson celebrates birdie on 18

Watson celebrates birdie on 18

Halfway through this year’s Open Championship, the 59-year-old Tom Watson is tied for the lead. He is five-time Open champion and came close to winning at least two more. But all his victories came between 1975 and 1983, he is long past his golfing prime, and he has already announced that he will play his final Open at St. Andrews next year. When he shot a five-under-par 65 yesterday to sit one stroke off the lead, it was a great story, but no one expected it to last. And indeed, he was following the script when he followed an opening birdie today with 5 bogeys in the next 6 holes. But then the unexpected happened: four birdies and no bogeys from 9 through 18, including birdie putts of 60 feet on both 16 and 18. The result was a par round of 70 today, a cumulative score of 5 under par, and a tie for the lead. He is the oldest player by five years ever to lead a major championship at the halfway point.

I am writing now while he’s still in the lead, because this surely won’t last much longer.

Watson was for many years my favorite golfer, and he has been much in the news this week because of the Open’s return to Turnberry, the course on which he won the 1977 Open over Jack Nicklaus in the greatest two-player duel the sport has ever produced. I needn’t say much about it. Both players shot identical rounds of 68, 70, 65 on the first three days. They were paired together on the third day, going head to head. Then, as joint leaders, they were paired again on the fourth day, with Nicklaus finally falling to Watson through rounds of 66 and 65. Hubert Green, one of the top golfers of the day, finished third, 11 strokes behind, and said something to the effect that he won his tournament — he wasn’t sure what tournament Nicklaus and Watson were playing in. The lack of any competitors besides the two of them, the fact that they were paired together on days three and four, and the constant closeness of the score made their battle unique.

Oddly, I haven’t enjoyed all the attention their duel has received this week. It has always been a special memory for me, a private memory, my own. Now it is described over and over on TV, newspapers, magazines, the endless hype obliterating my personal vision. I was in Leeds at the time, as I described in one of my first posts, last September. If only I had been more adventuresome. I should have headed up to Scotland and seen the duel in person. I was visiting the University of Leeds, doing mathematics in the summer following my PhD, and taking simple day trips on weekends. A couple of weekendss earlier, I had gone down to London to see a cricket match. Not just any match. The Ashes, the latest in the historic cricket test match series between England and Australia. My Leeds office mate was an Australian mathematician visiting for the year. His wife was working in London and he would go down on weekends. He suggested I meet him on a Saturday so we could go to Lord’s. Test matches take five days and we were going to watch part of one day. With breaks for tea and lunch, and breaks when the sky got too dark for play, we didn’t see a lot of action. But I learned a lot about cricket, and I took the train back up to Leeds that evening.

Two weeks later, I took the train to Durham to see the cathedral and the beautiful city. It was a Saturday. The Open used to run from Wednesday to Saturday, since it wasn’t appropriate to play golf on Sunday. As I explained in my post last September:

In the afternoon, I returned to the train station, intending to return to Leeds, but when a train pulled in bound for Newcastle, just a little farther north, I decided to hop on. I wandered around in the environs of the train station, wondering where all the coal was (I had always been struck by the phrase bringing coals to Newcastle, and after a while, having seen nothing of interest, I headed back to catch the train to Leeds. And what a crowded train it was, filled with families, many eating their carry-on dinners on the tables that separated the facing bench seats from each other. The trip back seemed to take forever. I was relieved to return to the Barrington Court after a long day.

My reward was an evening of fabulous television. That Saturday wasn’t just any Saturday. It was July 9. The final day of play in the 1977 Open Championship, the day that Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson had the greatest one-on-one competition in major golf championship history. I had missed it all, of course, while touring. But the BBC had put together an edited re-broadcast that showed every single shot the two played in that round. Mind you, others did play that day, 85 others. But the day before, Jack and Tom both shot third rounds of 65 to distance themselves from everyone else, so it was possible to focus on just the two of them, paired together, to see all the action that mattered. In that famed final round, the 27-year-old Watson stood toe to toe with Nicklaus, hole after hole, ultimately shooting a second 65 to Nicklaus’s 66 to win the championship. The rest of the leaderboard was a who’s who of men’s golf, but they were way behind. Hubert Green was 3rd, 11 strokes behind Watson and 10 behind Nicklaus. Then came Lee Trevino, Ben Crenshaw, George Burns III, Arnold Palmer, and Ray Floyd. The broadcast of that round, condensed to an hour (or was it 90 minutes), was the most exciting sporting event I ever watched …

The July 13 issue of Golf World has a piece by the golf writer Jaime Diaz on his favorite memory of Tom Watson. He goes back to the 1994 Open, also played at Turnberry, when Tom Watson, already past his prime, was tied for the lead on the final day with 11 holes to go. But then his putting deserted him, he made consecutive double bogeys, and finished tied for 11th. Diaz tells the story of the aftermath:

Just before midnight, Larry Dorman, then and now the golf writer for The New York Times, was walking next to Turnberry’s par-3 course after filing his report on Nick Price’s victory when he heard laughter and made out the profiles of two familiar figures. With exceptional professional generosity, he found a land line (no cell phones then) to call me in the rented house where I was staying, about a half-mile away. “Get over here now,” he said.
Two minutes later, we were both watching Watson and Nicklaus, along with their wives, in a boisterous alternate-shot match. After a long dinner during which wine flowed, they had descended from the majestic hotel down to the pitch and putt, which was bathed in moonlight as prominent as the golden rays of 1977.

They may have had their wives’ purses slung over their shoulders, but the moment carried an undeniable undercurrent of poignancy. Nicklaus was exhibiting both empathy and encouragement—friendship—to the very rival who had handed him his most painful defeats. To insure that no sentimentality would be betrayed, Nicklaus employed a sharp needle.

“Uh-oh, Tom’s got a five-footer,” he said at one point. “They’ve got no chance now.” When Watson sank the putt, Nicklaus dug deeper: “See how well you can putt when you can’t see the hole?” Watson’s gruff reply—approximately, “You jerk”—was code for, “Thanks, I’ll be all right.”

Maybe Diaz knew what would be coming this week. He concludes:

Because of the recent rule that stops the former-champion exemption at age 60, Watson will deal with even more emotion in his own finale at the British next year at the Old Course. But that’s next year. He comes to Turnberry off the good memory of winning the Senior British Open in 2003 with a closing 64, a victory he dedicated to Edwards, who passed away from ALS eight months later.

“I can play links golf courses,” says Watson, exhibiting that deep-rooted pleasure. “And If I’m hitting on all cylinders, I can make a run.”
If it were to somehow happen, Turnberry’s most prominent year in the history books will forever be 2009.

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Categories: Golf
  1. gailirving
    July 18, 2009 at 6:08 PM

    Some people actually do think Watson can win and haven’t given up hope for him. I would be one of them. ‘No one’ is the wrong term to use when dealing with issues of hope. Surely there will always be ‘some one’ and usually it will be me.

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