Tom Watson will play a British doubleheader of sorts this month when he tees it up at Royal Lytham & St Annes with the young guys and at Turnberry with the seniors. At 62, that alone is quite a feat, but given his success overseas you have to like his chances of being competitive at the British Open and of winning the Senior British Open. His eight combined victories in those events are unmatched, and his playoff loss to Stewart Cink at Turnberry in 2009 still has golf fans hoping, talking and reminiscing.
“The most important thing that came out of it was the response I got from fans and all over the world,” Watson said about his magical run three years ago. “It really brought to light for many people that age is just a number. I hear many people tell me that they had given up on something in their life because they thought they were too old and watching me changed their mind. That’s probably the most poignant thing that came out of it.”
In all, Watson claimed eight major championships during his salad days on the PGA Tour. Those wins included five British Opens (1975, 1977, 1980, 1982 and 1983), one U.S. Open (1982), and two Masters titles (1977 and 1981). He was and always will be considered one of the great champions of his era.
Here’s what Watson had to say about the past, present and future:
Your five wins at the British Open Championship are a remarkable achievement. Most people talk about your second win in 1977 at Turnberry against Jack Nicklaus, but you almost never hear about your first in 1975 at Carnoustie in an 18-hole playoff win against Jack Newton. Can you describe that first win for us?
Carnoustie is renowned as one of the toughest of the Open rotation courses. That week it played a little easier than how it has in the past because there was very little wind until the fourth round. There was no rough and you just had to stay on the course and out of the bunkers. I got into a playoff with Jack Newton from Australia after making a birdie putt on the 18th hole. Before the last round I saw Byron Nelson along with [golf announcer] Chris Schenkel and I asked Byron for some advice on the final round and he said, ‘with the wind blowing as hard as it is, if you shoot even par you’ll be right there.’ And that’s exactly what I did.
Your ability to win and compete at British Open venues gave you a reputation as a “bad weather” golfer. Is that an accurate label or is there something else about that championship that elevates your game?
I actually think the bad weather is a little overstated for the British Opens because we play in July and the weather is generally pretty good. I did have a good round at the Memorial tournament in 1979 when the conditions were horrible during the second round. I shot a 3-under-par 69 with sideways rain and tough wind and that round more than any other probably gave me a “bad weather player” label.
This year you’ll be back to back with the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes and at Turnberry for the Senior British Open. What are your thoughts on those venues?
The St. Annes course has 206 bunkers on it and to negotiate those land mines should be your game plan. I was over there about a month ago and one of the bunkers took me four shots to get out. As far as Turnberry, I’m going back to a course I truly love and I believe I’ve played it more than any of the other players in the field. I hope my game is in shape when I get there.
Your three wins at the Senior British Open also must give you pride. How special is it to win majors on the Champions Tour?
I’m a competitor and I love to play competitive golf. If that’s the level that I’m playing then I want to win. I don’t try to compare the Champions Tour to the PGA Tour, although beating the kids would be a lot more important to anyone, especially at my age.
What American golfer today has the best game suited to winning the British Open?
I like Rickie Fowler’s ability from watching him last year. It was tough conditions at Royal St. Georges and his imagination and ability to move the ball in heavy wind conditions was great. I think from the new players he has a real good chance of winning multiple Open Championships.
It’s hard to imagine there was a time in your career when you were known as a guy who faded on Sundays and couldn’t win the big tournaments. How difficult was that for you at the time?
I didn’t know how to win when I first came out on Tour. It took me several times to figure it out and I think that happens to a lot of young players. The pressure of winning any tournament is difficult and many times it just doesn’t work out. But the more you’re in that pressure the more you understand it. I was fortunate to put myself in many pressure situations and finally I figured it out and had a breakout year in 1977 when I won a couple major championships and a few other tournaments.
What do you remember most about playing for Stanford and who were some of the better players in college during your time there?
I remember playing the Stanford golf course and Bud Finger was our coach and he was a good man. We didn’t have much of a budget and we played high schools and junior colleges because we didn’t have a travel budget. The best player at the time was Lanny Wadkins at Wake Forest, but we had our share of competition. During my senior year I decided to turn professional and I put in considerable effort in practicing to get ready and it changed my focus and that was a good thing.
You had a tournament in the past that raised money for the Stanford golf team. What is your involvement today with the team?
Every year after the PGA Tour stop in Napa at Silverado Country Club we’d invite the pros to come and play in the tournament. When I went to Stanford the budget for the golf team was $8,000 a year and you couldn’t do very much with that kind of money. That tournament along with a few friendly donors really helped upgrade the golf program.
You’re in a stage of your career where fans want to see you play as well as acknowledge you for past achievements. How special is your fan base to you?
I just hope they keep coming out to watch us play. I want to play for a few more years and I really want to give the fans the type of show they’re looking for.
What are you looking forward to the most after your playing career?
I think the transition from playing to not playing will be somewhat difficult. However, if you plan on what you’re going to be doing after your career it makes it a lot easier. I have several things on the horizon and if I continue to be in good health I hope to realize some of those goals.
— Jim Dover