It wasn’t a perfect ending, but it came pretty close. Tom Watson made his final walk to an 18th green in an Open Championship—this one the Senior British Open—with nine holes to play. That’s because the last round of this Open was played in threesomes, with those near the back of the pack teeing off on the 10th hole. Watson, tied for 55th, was one of those, meaning he finished the championship on the ninth hole.
But that didn’t really matter. As he walked up the 18th at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, his face was filled with the emotion he clearly was feeling. His playing companions both understood what was happening, and they fell back to allow Watson to walk onto the green alone. Watson paused, cap off, turned and bowed to the cheering fans on both sides of the green. Then he blew kisses and clapped for them all, saying a final thank you for 44 years of extraordinary memories, even as they said thank you to him.
He finished the windy, rainy day—a classic Tom Watson weather round—with a three-over-par 73 that left him tied for 60th. But that didn’t really matter, either. Just the fact that he made the cut in one more senior major championship a little more than five weeks before turning 70 was enough to allow him the kind of farewell he wanted—on a Sunday, not a Friday.
It was a bittersweet moment. The end comes later for golfers, but it comes nevertheless. Watson will play in an occasional PGA Tour Champions event in the future, but he’s done playing majors.
The numbers are remarkable—eight majors, including five Open championships; six senior majors, three more in Great Britain. But he might have won more hearts with a loss: the 2009 Open when he came within inches of winning at 59 before losing in a playoff to Stewart Cink.
He was already an adopted son in Scotland, dating to his first Open victory, at Carnoustie in 1975—the first time he played in the championship—and that spread to all of Great Britain as he aged with amazing grace. That’s why Watson's decision to play his last major championship in Great Britain made so much sense. Even though Watson is almost 70, he still has enough game to compete with the 50-and-older set. He finished T-17 at the U.S. Senior Open last month and made the cut at Lytham with room to spare.
But Watson has always believed it’s better to leave too soon than too late. He made the cut at the Open Championship three times in four years from 2011-'14, including a T-22 in 2011 at age 61. That came two years after he almost pulled off what would have been golf’s most stunning feat when he came so achingly close at Turnberry.
That second-place finish allowed him to keep playing the Open until he was 65 and to finish at St. Andrews—just as Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus did. Nicklaus’ last Open was in 2005, and one of the players in his Thursday-Friday group was Watson.
As they crossed the Swilcan Bridge and walked up 18, Watson was weeping so much that Nicklaus had to calm him down. “Tom, you have to stop,” he said. “You can still make the cut.”
Watson did make the cut and finished T-41. Given that he had made the cut the previous year, Watson had hoped to make it in his final appearance at St. Andrews in 2015. Before that championship, I asked him if he qualified to play in 2016 would he come back. “Nope,” he said. “This is it. It’s time.”
With son Michael caddieing for him, he missed the cut in horrific weather and walked off 18 dry-eyed. “It all felt right,” he said back then. “No tears, just a wonderful feeling and feeling grateful to more people than I could possibly count.”
Watson won the Open five times in nine years, beginning with his playoff victory over Jack Newton at Carnoustie in 1975 to become a major champion at 25. Two years later, he beat Nicklaus at Turnberry in their famous Duel in the Sun, shooting 65-65 the last two days to beat Nicklaus’s 65-66. Then came wins at Muirfield in 1980, Troon in 1982 and Royal Birkdale in 1983—his only non-Scottish victory.
The only Scottish course in the rota where Watson didn’t win was St. Andrews—one of his greatest regrets. He finished second there to Seve Ballesteros in 1984, when he bogeyed the Road Hole and ended up losing by two shots.
He won the Senior Open three times—2003, 2005 and 2007. The first of those wins came at Turnberry. He shot 64 on the last day to catch Carl Mason and win in a playoff. That may have been Watson’s most emotional win. His long-time caddie and best friend Bruce Edwards was dying of ALS and too sick to make the trip. Neil Oxman—who was also on the bag in 2009—caddied for him that week and the two men brought the flag from the 18th hole back home to Edwards after the victory.
To say that Watson is beloved in all of the British Isles is an understatement. He loves playing links golf and would often go to Ireland with his pal Lee Trevino the week before the Open championship to play the great golf courses there.
When Watson was Ryder Cup captain in 1993, I hitched a ride with him on his cart near the end of Friday’s play after a match had ended on the 18th hole at The Belfry. He wanted to get back to 16 to watch Paul Azinger and Fred Couples duel with Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie in the only match left on the course. Watson parked the cart behind the 16th tee and walked across the tee to get to the back of the 15th green. At that moment, the tee was teeming with marshals and security people in anticipation of the arrival of the four players.
They parted for Watson, all of them calling his name and wishing him luck. Watson smiled his thanks as he walked through them. I followed, staying as close to Watson as I could.
“Hey,” yelled a marshal. “How dare you walk across the tee like that!”
Before I could point out that my sneakers were unlikely to damage the tee or anything else, Watson stopped and turned around. He had a huge smile on his face. “Media,” he said, sounding disgusted. “They just never give you any space, do they?”
As the security people closed on me and thoughts of a night in an English jail crossed my mind, Watson waved a hand. “Just kidding everyone,” he said. “He’s alright … for a reporter.”
They all laughed, and I was released.
“You tell ‘em, Toom,” several shouted.
“Probably one of those Americans,” someone else said.
I didn’t waste my time pointing out that Watson was an American because I knew they wouldn’t believe me. Even when he was trying to take the Ryder Cup back to the U.S. he was one of them.
One might think that—being an American—Watson might want to exit at the U.S. Senior Open—especially given how well he played there this year. This, though, makes more sense, going out in a place where he is loved by all, in a championship he won eight times in all, on a links course, in links weather in front of the fans who adored him, and who he adored right back.
It has been a difficult 21 months for Watson. His wife, Hilary, has been battling pancreatic cancer, and though she is cancer-free at the moment, the fear that the cancer might return—it has already done so once after she was declared cancer-free—is omnipresent.
But Sunday was a day for tears of joy, for reminders of days filled with more memories than one can reasonably expect in one lifetime.
That walk up to the final green was one more to add to the collection.