A couple of Saturdays ago, after the third round the British Senior Open, Tom Watson announced that he would be retiring from competitive golf the next day. It was appropriate he did this after participating in a tournament on a links course – in this case Royal Lytham & St Annes – given that he won five Opens (of his eight major championships in total) from his 38 appearances on an Open links in Britain, although I guess it would have been even more fitting had he been playing in Scotland at the time. He won four of the five there (at Carnoustie, Turnberry, Muirfield and Royal Troon; although never over the Old Course at St Andrews, where he held the 54-hole lead in both 1978 and 1984) with the fifth and final one being delivered just down the road from Lytham, at Royal Birkdale in 1983.
In addition to those titles, he won the Masters twice and the US Open once, the latter secured with a dramatic chip-in on the 71st hole at Pebble Beach, although never the USPGA, where he was denied in a playoff in 1978.
“I have thought long and hard about this decision,” said Watson. “It has to do with really a pretty sensible assessment of how I play now. I just don’t have the tools in the tool box.” He later revealed he had called Jack Nicklaus to ask what had made him finally decide to give up. Jack told him “probably because I couldn’t play any more”. Watson added: “I’ve been kind of spinning my wheels out here. I haven’t been able to compete the way I want to.” An additional, and significant, reason was the fact that his wife, Hilary, is undergoing treatment for cancer. “This is going to give me some more time to go out and compete [against that] with her.”
Of course, Watson’s five Open titles so nearly became six. Back at Turnberry in 2009, then aged 59, 32 years after he outgunned Jack Nicklaus in the ‘Duel in the Sun’ to claim his second championship, Watson hit a perfect approach shot to the final hole that seemed certain to set up the par-four which would win him the claret jug. But, as he recognised as well as anyone, the luck of the bounce is an integral part of links golf. In this instance, the rank bad luck. His ball took an unfathomably hard bounce and went over the back of the green. From there he took three to get down and, exhausted both mentally and physically, he could not match Stewart Cink in the ensuing four-hole playoff. We will remember him for that heroic effort as much as for those victories (he also won the British Seniors three times), if not for the fact that his last three holes in the teeming rain at Lytham produced three consecutive bogeys. But that’s of no consequence. He departed the links for the last time as arguably the greatest-ever exponent of how to play one since the days of another couple of guys called Tom – Old and Young Tom Morris.
You can follow me on Twitter @robrtgreen and also read my other blog at f-factors.com – plus there’s more golf blogging from me in the 19th hole section on the Golf Today website