Five With A Flourish
Tom Watson, forever (and rightfully) linked with the British Open, takes Golf World on a tour of his wins, from Carnoustie to Birkdale
On the silver anniversary of its conclusion, Tom Watson's run of success at the British Open -- five victories between 1975 and 1983 -- remains one of the most dominant stretches in golf. Only J.H. Taylor, James Braid and Peter Thomson have claimed the claret jug as many times, and only Harry Vardon, a six-time champion, won more. Watson, though, prevailed when the fields were deeper, and he is the only man to win the event on five different courses. The passage of time makes it easier to appreciate Watson's accomplishment, and perhaps even to understand it.
Watson grew up landlocked, in the middle of America, in Kansas City, Mo., a long way from any links courses. He wasn't a noted manufacturer of shots, not a fan of the knockdown that cheats the breeze. Watson hit the ball high, which normally is no friend in the wind, but there was attitude to go with the altitude.
"I always hit it solid," he says in the matter-of-fact manner that is as much a part of his countenance as his gap-toothed smile. "I rarely mis-hit the ball." Look for other omens to explain Watson's British reign and you can find them. One of the first clubs Watson's father, Ray, put in his son's hands was a cutdown Stewart spade mashie made in St. Andrews. The Watson surname first appeared in records in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1392. The clan's motto is Imperata flourit. Translated, the motto means, "It has flourished beyond expectation."
Gritty and serious, his pace of play as brisk as his swing, Watson appeared, in his heyday and beyond, to be a self-sufficient man playing under self-induced pressure for his self-satisfaction. He owns just one replica of the claret jug, a piece of silver about half as large as the real thing. "It would be kind of neat to have five of the 90-percenters," he says. "I'm thinking about it, but they're expensive. They cost about 10 or 11 grand."
Early on, when he was just another golfer with a reverse-C swing wearing polyester slacks, Watson was concerned more with legacy than currency. "I remember one specific instance," says 1978 PGA champion John Mahaffey, who set out on tour the same time as Watson. "I won my second year in Las Vegas, at the Sahara Invitational in 1973. And Tom hadn't won yet. We were sitting in an airport in San Antonio. He just kind of looked at me and said, 'You've done something I've always wanted to do.' I said, 'What's that?' Tom said, 'You've won a PGA Tour event. You'll never be forgotten.' "
WATSON WAS 25 and in Europe for the first time when he arrived at Carnoustie on the Sunday before the 1975 British Open, intent on a practice round. (The championship was played from Wednesday to Saturday at that time.) An official told him the course was open only to those who had qualified that week, so he headed to nearby Monifieth GL, not far from his rental house, to play with Mahaffey and Hubert Green.
His introduction to links golf was inauspicious, to say the least. He hit a drive off the first on the exact line his club caddie told him to take. "He said, 'Hit it right there,' and I hit it right where he told me," Watson recalls. "Couldn't find my ball. Looked for it and looked for it. I finally saw this little pot bunker, 40 yards off line from where I hit. Sure enough, it was in there. My very first shot at links golf. I said, 'This isn't golf. This is luck, or bad luck.' "
When he was able to get on Carnoustie the next day, he enjoyed the services of caddie Alfie Fyles. "It was through IMG," Watson says. "I had asked [former agent] Hughes Norton to hook me up with a caddie over there." Fyles was well known among British caddies, hailing from a large family in Southport, England, whose father had caddied at Royal Birkdale before World War I. Alfie and his brothers followed suit. Alfie's brother Albert caddied for Tom Weiskopf for many years in the British Open, including his 1973 victory at Royal Troon. Alfie worked for Gary Player at Carnoustie in 1968 when the South African won his second Open title.