British Open 2019: Ten years later, Tom Watson reflects—but doesn't dwell—on what could have been
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Ten years later, Tom Watson remembers the days following the 2009 Open Championship more vividly than the four remarkable days that came before.
“You're taxing my memory,” he said with a laugh in response to specific questions about that weekend at Turnberry when he came within a few inches of what arguably would have been golf’s most remarkable achievement. “I’ll be 70 in September, so some of my memories aren’t as clear as others.”
Watson is modest about his memory; it’s actually still very good.
But his most vivid memories are of what happened after he lost to Stewart Cink in a four-hole playoff at Turnberry that July.
“I really shook the disappointment off the day after—on Monday—when we got to London,” he said. “We flew right there because the Senior Open was that week [at Sunningdale], and I needed to play a practice round. I think I’d only seen the golf course once. When we got to the hotel, I was still kind of moping around, thinking, ‘I don’t want to go practice, I just want to stay here and do nothing.’ But then I sort of gave myself a kick in the butt and said, ‘Come on Tom, you have to move on. Go practice.’ I did and, after that, I really was OK.”
He finished T-7 that week, largely because he putted poorly. “I’d found a gimmick the week before that had helped me,” he said. “But it didn’t work for me the next week. I must have three-putted seven or eight times. I hit the ball well. I just couldn’t putt.”
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Watson had discovered the “gimmick” the previous Wednesday at Turnberry. Throughout his career, Watson always tinkered with his swing, with his putting stroke, with everything about his golf game—even on the day before a major championship.
“I putted horribly in the practice round on Tuesday,” he said. “So, I decided to try something different. I started rotating my shoulder as opposed to dropping my front shoulder. Wasn’t a huge change, but all of a sudden everything started going in. I decided to stick with it. Right then, the thought occurred to me that I was capable of winning on this golf course. At that point there were a lot of places where I couldn’t hit the ball far enough to compete. But not Turnberry. I knew I had a chance.”
Watson loved the fact that the wind changed on Friday, coming from the northwest—unusual for the golf course. “It was my sixth major championships there,” (four Opens, two Senior Opens, winning one of each) Watson said. “I not only knew the golf course, but I knew the winds better than anyone. Most of the guys had never played the golf course in a northwest wind. When I heard the weather report for the weekend, I figured that would help me.”
So did the putting adjustment. Watson shot a five-under-par 65 the first day in calm conditions and was tied for second, one shot behind leader Miguel Angel Jimenez. Then the winds came and the low scores disappeared. Only seven players broke par on Friday. Watson shot an even-par 70 and was tied for the lead with Steve Marino.
The winds stayed up through the weekend. Watson’s 71 was good enough to put him into the lead at four under going into Sunday. A number of players were close behind—one of them Cink, three shots back.
“By then I knew I was playing well enough and putting well enough to win,” Watson said. “I got off to a shaky start Sunday [two early bogeys] but then made a couple of birdie putts, and there we all were, coming down the stretch with a chance.”
Cink made a 15-foot birdie putt at 18 to finish a 69, the best round of any of the leaders and was the clubhouse leader at two under par. Lee Westwood, thinking he needed a birdie to have a chance, three-putted the 18th to drop to one under.
Watson had a tricky six-foot par putt at 16 and made it to stay at two under. “Funny thing is, I hit a bad putt, and it went in,” he said. “Sometimes you hit a good putt and it doesn’t go in; sometimes it’s the other way around. I got lucky. ‘NOW,' I thought, 'this is in my hands.’ When I walked to the 17th tee, I really felt like it was my tournament to win because it was a par 5, and if I could make a birdie, I’d have the lead with one hole to play.”
He did just that and walked to the 18th tee needing a par to become the oldest man ever—by more than 10 years—to win a major championship.
“The hole was playing downwind,” he said. “I knew if I could get my tee shot in the fairway, I should have a pretty reasonable second shot in.”
His tee shot found the fairway. Watson DOES remember the next few minutes in detail. He and Neil Oxman, who had caddied often for him since 2003 when Bruce Edwards was first stricken with ALS, walked briskly to the ball.
The day before, walking up 18 with the lead and everyone in the place on their feet cheering, Watson had looked at Oxman and said, “You know he’s up there watching don’t you?” a reference to Edwards, who died in 2004.
Oxman, who had been friends with Edwards since 1973, the year Bruce first caddied for Watson said, “Don’t make me cry.”
Now though, with the championship one more good swing away, they were all business.
“I didn’t ask Ox what he thought on club selection very often,” Watson said. “But this time I did. I said, ‘What do you think?’ He paused a moment and then said, ‘I think it’s an 8.’ That’s what I thought, too.”
Watson thought he had hit the shot perfectly when it came off the club. “I could see it was right down the stack. I thought, ‘If this lands in the right spot, I’ve got this.’ ”
He couldn’t see the ball land but saw the high hop it took, which sent it bouncing and rolling through the green. “Andy [North, who was walking with the group for TV] told me later it landed on the downslope,” Watson said. “I’ve really never second-guessed anything about the shot. That’s golf. Sometimes you get lucky like I did on 16, sometimes you don’t.”
To this day, Oxman does second-guess himself. “I should have told him to hit 9,” he said. “Even if he’d come up just short, it’s an easier shot than the one he ended up with over the green.”
Oxman is too tough on himself. The bounce was a result of the vagaries of links golf. As Greg Norman often says, “There’s a reason why golf is a four-letter word.”
Watson’s ball nestled up against high grass, and he tried to putt it from there, the ball going about seven feet past the hole.
“And then I hit an awful putt,” he said—always direct.
The putt, to win the championship, was a classic decel, and it came up short and right.
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I have often said that at that moment, Watson looked like Joe Hardy in “Damn Yankees,” when the devil turns him into an old man again. All the adrenaline and energy seemed to drain out of him.
“I was fine,” he insisted. “You miss a putt that badly, you aren’t going to look very good at that moment.”
Cink made two birdies in the playoff and won by six shots.
Watson “moved on” to the Senior Open. It was only a week later when he got home that he first understood the impact his performance had on people.
“Honestly, that’s what I remember the most,” he said. “The reaction was overwhelming. Thousands of letters, e-mails, texts—everything you can imagine. They came in for months. The theme of them was simple: 'You made me believe in myself again. You helped me try something that I thought I couldn’t do anymore. You inspired me to believe anything is possible.' Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for that. It really touched me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.”
A year later, at St. Andrews, Watson and Cink played a practice round together. “I’ve always liked Stewart. He’s a very good guy,” Watson said. “We weren’t on the same tour anymore, so I didn’t see much of him. I just thought it was something I wanted to do.”
Watson has played Turnberry only once since 2009, a Sunday-morning outing with friends on the final day of the 2016 Open Championship, down the road at Troon. The golf course has been redesigned since then (Watson loves the changes), but there were still plenty of memories for him that day.
“Most of them good,” he said. “I DID win twice there [1977 in his classic duel with Jack Nicklaus and 2003 in the Senior British], and I feel very good about the way I played in ’09. I was one lousy putt away.”
Watson will be in Northern Ireland this week for the Open Championship, which he last played a St. Andrews in 2015. Next week he will play in the Senior Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes.
He always loves returning to the U.K. Having won the Open Championship five times—and the Senior Open three times—he has been an adopted son there for years.
“That’s the other thing I remember from that weekend,” he said. “Every time we walked on a tee or on a green, the people were unbelievable. I still get chills now thinking about that.”
And we all still get chills thinking about the miracle that might have been.
Should have been. Dammit.