July 6, 2009

My Favorite Tom Watson Memory

A Tom Watson-Turnberry moment to remember

Tom Watson tees off at the first on the final day of the 1994 British Open at Turnberry where he fell short of a sixth title.

Tom Watson tees off at the first on the final day of the 1994 British Open at Turnberry where he fell short of a sixth title.

Turnberry has always been most identified with 1977, when Tom Watson faced down Jack Nicklaus over the final 36 holes to win the British Open by a stroke. It remains the greatest prolonged showdown in the game's history: the Duel in the Sun.

Like so many, I watched it on television transfixed. But because of a magical scene I witnessed in person, my memory of Turnberry the last time it held the British Open in 1994 is even more vivid.

Great athletes are often most compelling on those occasions when they lose, and this has been especially true of Watson. He remains the bravest, most indomitable golfer I've ever seen. For Watson, the harder the conditions, the more rugged the competition, even the more demons to overcome, the better. It was evident in the way he stood up to five-footers when he never missed them, and in the way he stood up to them when he never made them. As his longtime friend and mentor, Sandy Tatum, puts it, there is in Watson, "a deep-rooted pleasure at the prospect of the challenge."

That pleasure was still evident at Turnberry in 1994, even though Watson, then 44, had won the last of his eight majors in 1983 and his last official tournament in 1987. But he had recently found a swing key that to this day makes him one of the game's great ball-strikers, gained confidence from a putting lesson from Lee Trevino and was determined to win for longtime caddie and close friend Bruce Edwards, with whom he had never won a British Open.

With 11 holes left, Watson had a share of the lead and the record- tying sixth British Open in his sights. But he began flinching on short putts, leading to consecutive double bogeys. Watson visibly sagged in a way I'd never seen before. He would limp home in 74 with 38 putts and finish T-11. "My most discouraging moment," he says.

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."

Nicklaus has referred to the interlude as his favorite Watson story. And when Watson finally broke his winless streak with a victory at the 1996 Memorial, the tournament host was emotional as he hugged Watson on the 72nd green. Conversely, in Nicklaus' farewell round at St. Andrews in 2005, it was Watson who wiped away tears on the 18th green and held on the longest in their prolonged embrace.

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.