British Open: Tom Watson, 60, is back for more

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010

ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND -- The decision to hit 8-iron a year ago, when 9 might have been enough club to settle safely into the middle of the final green, has long since ceased to gnaw at Tom Watson. Same for the choice of a putter from the fringe off the back edge, the one he stroked well past the hole when he might have chipped the ball closer. And the eight-foot putt -- the stroke that would have won him the 2009 British Open, the one that never had a chance of rolling into the cup -- doesn't gall him any more either.

Add them up, though, and they count for something.

"The loss is hard to take," Watson said Wednesday. "As I said then, it tore my guts up. But my guts have been torn up out here, in this game."

Lacerated innards or not, he is here, at the Old Course, for the 139th British Open that begins Thursday, his 33rd appearance in the tournament. Watson is 60 years old, an age by which he should not even be in position to make such meaningful shots, to be considered a potential contender here, yet he could be considered just that. What he did a year ago this week at Turnberry rejuvenated his legendary but largely dormant career, overshadowed Stewart Cink's playoff victory, and presented a question that could arise when major championships are held at venues such as the Old Course, where knowledge and cunning trump length and brawn as the primary determinants of the champion.

How old is too old?

"God, I hope a 60-year-old guy can do that," Watson said. "That would be pretty cool."

A year ago, on the Wednesday before play began, 59 certainly seemed too old. The oldest major champion then -- and, as it turns out, still -- was Julius Boros, who won the 1968 PGA Championship at 48. Now? Watson knows he has been approached by people who drew something from watching him carry the lead to the 72nd tee, folks who might now think differently about blowing out still more candles on each passing cake.

"It's been a wonderful time talking with people who frankly said, 'You've given me hope that I can still do it at my age,' " Watson said. " 'I'm the same age as you, Tom. I'm 60 years old and I'd given up on the game or given up on something else, and you've literally given me some hope, and actually desire, to keep at it.' "

So much came together to make the 2009 Open what it was that recreating it, as Arnold Palmer said Wednesday, "would be very difficult for him to duplicate." Watson had won at Turnberry in 1977, a thrilling duel with Jack Nicklaus. He clearly drew inspiration from the place, along Scotland's Ayrshire coast. And his game. His game -- be he 29 or 59 -- was sublime, the first bit of logic he defied. There is no one here who has played a round with Watson over the past year or two -- players of all accomplishments and all ages -- who hasn't been, at the very least, impressed with his ball-striking.

"I don't think he ever misses a shot, to be honest with you," said Fairfax native Steve Marino, who shared the lead with Watson midway through last year's Open and was paired with him again at this year's Masters.

When Phil Mickelson, now a four-time major champion, first turned pro, he had dinner with Bruce Edwards, Watson's late caddie. Back then, Edwards told Mickelson how he never saw Watson fail to hit the ball precisely on the sweet spot of the club. It is a trait, his competitors say, that he carries into his 60s.

"I don't know if anybody has struck the ball as solidly as he has," Mickelson said. "He might push it or pull it a little bit, but he was finding the center of the club face every single shot. He has such a solid golf swing and strikes the ball so solidly that the wind has much less effect on his ball flight than it does over others."

Though he was only a stroke off the first-round lead at this year's Masters and played 1-under-par golf through the middle two rounds of last month's brutal U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Watson played down his expectations as this year's Open approaches. "My form is not quite as good as it was last year, to be frank with you," he said. He is exempt through the 2014 event at Hoylake, and the tournament won't return to the Old Course until 2015. So at the champions' dinner held Tuesday night, he told players he expected this would be his last journey here.

"That tells me something," Palmer said. "Tom is probably ready to hit the ranks of the older players on tour."

Watson already has an artificial hip, and he laid such wistful thoughts about his final appearance here on the physical limitations he faces now and in the future. "I don't know how my body is going to be in five years," he said.

But in figuring out what might sustain a competitive career, the list of chronic problems with which golfers typically deal -- rotator cuff, neck, back, elbow -- could be trumped by the mental strain. Watson himself looked washed up at what now seems the midpoint of his career, going winless between 1987 and 1996, his late 30s to late 40s. There were physical issues during that period, not least of all what could generously be described as inconsistent putting. But he had also been a touring professional for two decades.

"Generally, if you look at the careers of professional golfers, they last about 20 years before they burn out," said two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington. "Golfers finish up their careers when they lose that little bit of adrenaline, that little bit of buzz. . . . Physically, you can keep going, but mentally it's very hard to keep going in this game."

When and if the desire and competitiveness fizzle is a personal, unpredictable occurrence. "It happens fast," said Nick Faldo, who won the Open three times, and added three Masters titles, all before age 39. Since then, Faldo has one victory on the PGA or European tours. He will turn 53 Sunday, but he is here almost as a token. He rarely plays, a state that arose because his physical skills began to slip, and that got to his head.

"You don't quite hit it the same, and then obviously that probably eats at your confidence that way," Faldo said. "That was my circle, because I was so consistent that I could trust it, and then all of a sudden you start seeing a few [shots] going different directions, and [you're] thinking, 'Hey, I went through the same process.' . . . That used to wind me up, that I would do the same things and things were going like that, and that," he said, mimicking wayward shots. "I suppose that's what slowly did me in."

Watson is not done in, not yet, anyway. He has won five Claret Jugs. A year ago, he nearly won another.

"I never think about my history in the Open," he said. "What I think about is I'm still here as a competitor to try to play the golf course the best I can, and that's what I'm doing."

Whether that leads to victory, or even contention, is another matter. But Watson showed a year ago that it is, even at his age, possible. The entire field is aware of it.

"One thing with golf," Harrington said. "Experience will always -- always -- counter talent."

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