Sport Golf

Thursday 23 March 2017

Wily Watson stays the course despite wretched conditions

Veteran shows young guns there's plenty of life left in the old dog yet, writes Mike Selvey

On Wednesday, during a practice round, Darren Clarke, schooled in the Atlantic winds that blow through Royal Portrush, spent considerable time giving Rory McIlroy a tutorial in links golf.

And as he explained each nuance of bump and run, and easy low shots that are anathema to those brought up on target golf, he kept offering the same rationale: "Experience, son, experience."

You can't reflect experience in the rankings, or bottle it and flog it in the exhibition tents. If you could, the likes of Clarke and Tom Watson -- while not short of a bob or two -- would be wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice.

The American Ricky Barnes is a lucky fellow, for in the four hours he was out with Watson, in the teeth of the storm, he too received a lesson in the art of just putting your head down and grinding on. Even those prone to the greatest understatement would describe the weather as inclement, and for several hours, as the rain came down in torrents and the wind hammered in to turn umbrellas inside out, it was vile.

Through it all, Watson, (61) compiled a masterpiece to which a score of two-over-par scarcely does justice. Starting the day six shots behind leader Clarke, and in the 10th group out catching the worst of the weather, he compiled a front nine of 34, one-under-par, bettered only on the day by another American, Gary Woodland -- even after the rain stopped and the wind abated.

The sheer intensity of the weather took its toll on the back nine, with four bogeys to go with a birdie at the short 16th, but when, bedraggled, Watson tapped his final putt in on the last and walked off, he did so with the satisfied air of a man who knew he had shown the young pups something.

These were not the conditions for golf as most in the field know it. The standard equation of distance calculated equals club selection goes out of the window. Hitting a low ball, and softly, is paramount, to reduce the spin that will make it soar and get lost on the wind. For him, Watson says, this is not so much of a problem as he no longer hits it hard enough in the first place. Putting becomes no longer a function of line and speed, but of the wind as well as it buffets the ball off line and moves the putter around as if stirring a cauldron of porridge.

But aside from one three-footer pushed aside on the 11th and one from eight feet on the last that would have given him par, but which went to the right without threatening, Watson was immaculate, with long, snaking approaches finishing dead, and par-saving putts nailed as he once holed them fearlessly in the glory days. Only his driving was not as he would have liked.

As he pottered the fairways, hunched against the elements, he might have been a crumpled old man, wondering what the hell he was doing out there at his age, sent out for a walk with a damp labrador trailing behind him and a lunchtime stiffener awaiting in the clubhouse bar. But he would hit his ball and, hands thrust back deep into pockets with head bowed, plough on into the wind and rain.

By the turn, we knew this was a special round. The first had been saved with a pitch and putt and the second with a shot of 140 yards from a fairway bunker. The fourth, though, was something else. It is almost 500 yards long, a par four for the tournament, and despite the tee being moved to the left and forwards, this, into the very teeth of the gale, still brought the ferocious Himalayas bunker into play. Watson's three wood put him safely alongside it before he flushed a driver from the fairway; it went no more than 180 yards. His pitch to the elevated green tucked away round a corner to the left finished 20 feet away, but in went the putt once again.

"That," he said to his caddie, as they stood on the fifth tee, "was as good as a birdie."

After his own round, Watson's countryman Bo Van Pelt suggested that when he awoke, Watson had looked out of his window and smiled knowingly. The experience, you see.

"I'll never tell," he said, but there was a rumpled smile as he spoke.

Two years ago, Watson, 26 years after his last Major, needs par at the 18th to win. He bogeys and Stewart Cink wins a play-off.

Last year, he said farewell to St Andrews at the 18th in the gloaming on Friday night with a beautiful chip to within inches of the cup.

This year he hits a hole in one at the sixth on Friday and is briefly clubhouse leader on third afternoon after a weather-taming 72.


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