Friday 23 February 2018

Links to the game's seaside roots remain a driving force

Five-time British Open champion Tom Watson hasn't lost his desire to win, as he tells Dermot Gilleece

With the look of someone transported into a deep rapture, Tom Watson wondered if I remembered the extraordinary sunset from the Wednesday prior to the Open Championship at Turnberry last year. He wanted to share its fiery intensity; the beauty of purples merging into blues in a high sky over Ailsa Craig. And the glorious stillness of it all.

"I photographed it, a panoramic shot with the lighthouse in the right-hand corner," he said. "Wonderful. I love to take pictures of the skies. It allows me revisit the moment from time to time, especially now that my memory is getting old and I don't remember things that well."

It was a theme which seemed to fit perfectly into the Legends Tournament where we met recently in Savannah. And being able to remember Turnberry without any sense of enduring hurt from the crushing disappointment of the Sunday after that sunset, illustrated the amazing balance in Watson's golfing life.

These days, he could be forgiven for tiring of regular references to the way he wears his 60 years. Sure, there are deep lines in his weather-beaten neck and the boyish, Huckleberry Finn look has long gone. In most other respects, however, he seems to have changed very little from the time I first saw him in 1975 as a competitor in the revived Irish Open at Woodbrook.

From a distance of more than 50 yards I could easily identify him on the practice range, testing a new driver with that gloriously rhythmic swing. Perhaps this might be the elusive implement which would deliver the precious extra yards to allow him compete more effectively with explosive young guns, half his age.

"If you ask any golfer on our (Champions) tour what they would like, I'd bet 90 per cent of them would want to hit the ball longer," he said. "As I discovered at Augusta, there's a huge advantage for the players who hit it long. It's not easy hitting five or six irons into greens designed to receive nine-iron or wedge shots."

Ultimately, the quest for length has to do with easing the pressure on putting strokes which tend to become rather fragile with the passing years. This is especially true of Watson for whom the blade first faltered seriously in the 1984 Open at St Andrews. And it was painfully unreliable by 1994 at Turnberry, where a reasonable return on the greens would have allowed him equal Harry Vardon's record of six Opens.

When he putts well, he invariably scores well and he attributes his extraordinary Open performance last year to the fact that he started holing putts in practice on the Tuesday. And his performance in the Masters owed much to an average of 28.5 putts per round, 0.5 better than the winner, Phil Mickelson.

It's been a good year for Watson so far. There was his 13th Champions Tour victory in the Mitsubishi Championship; a share of eighth place in Dubai on the European Tour and a memorable 37th US Masters appearance in which a blistering first-round 67 led eventually to a share of 18th place.

The way he and Fred Couples shared the early headlines at Augusta revived memories of a much more gentle exercise at Mount Juliet in July 1997 when they played each other in the Shell Wonderful World of Golf series. At 50, Couples seems to be equally indestructible, even if quirky footwear reflects recurring back problems.

When I suggested to Watson he had picked his parents with extreme care, he readily acknowledged being blessed with "great genes". "I've been very fortunate for most of my life, not having to play with any injury at all," he said. Then, pointing to his left hip, he went on: "The replacement hip was not for golf. It was so I could sleep at night. It hurt a bit at Augusta walking up and down those hills, but what really hurts it is hitting from uphill lies."

Experts acknowledge that Watson is now swinging better than when he won his eight major championships between 1975 and 1983. Back then, there was a looseness which made him quite erratic, though he extracted wonderful compensation from a sublime short game. His swing still has a quick tempo but is now far more controlled than in those halcyon days. Ironically, the transition can be traced back to Turnberry '94 when, by his own admission, he never hit the ball better from tee to green.

Meanwhile, he rejects the notion of being consigned by recent major performances to a sort of golfing no-man's-land -- too good for most senior rivals and not quite long enough to compete consistently on the regular tour.

"I love to compete," he said simply. "And we play competitive golf here on the Champions Tour. We really do. I challenge the perception of forward tees and easy pin-placements. Sure, the golf courses are a little shorter but the pin positions are tough. Winning is still the key, the reason to compete. Any time I go out on a golf course I play for a score. This keeps me sharp. And even for a Nassau bet, I'll play as hard as I would in a tournament.

"That's what I tell kids. Actually I ask what's their best score and if they immediately say it's a 76, I know they're focusing on becoming better players. But when they say 'I don't know', I begin to wonder."

Watson is keenly aware of this as a highly significant year in what may remain of his career as a top-flight player. He has accepted a special invitation to play in the US Open in which he deprived his great rival, Jack Nicklaus, of what seemed certain victory through an outrageous chip-in birdie on the short 71st at Pebble Beach in 1982.

And he will be playing the Open at St Andrews, not only as a five-time former champion who made a winning debut in 1975, but as runner-up last year when he lost a play-off to Stewart Cink. In fact, it will be his 33rd Open appearance and his seventh on the Old Course, where he was tied second behind Seve Ballesteros in 1984.

When we talked of Seve -- "I wish him well" -- I reminded him of a practice day that year, when Watson hit a wayward drive on the 12th and his ball was picked up by an old codger walking the course. "Was he an R and A type?" he was asked in the media centre afterwards. "No," replied Watson with a quiet smile. "This guy was more ancient than royal."

He laughed at the memory. "When you drive through the town and make the right-hand turn and then you turn left towards the clubhouse . . . " he mused. "That little hairpin bend always moves me. Every time I go to St Andrews, it fills me up because it represents the history of the game.

"Standing there on the first tee moves me more than on any first tee I've ever stood on. It's the easiest tee-shot in all of golf but you still want to hit a good one because you know that everyone who has gone before you in the game has stood on that tee and played a shot out there. That's the really neat thing to me."

The very mention of links terrain brings a sparkle to his eyes. And he's honest enough to acknowledge he was attempting to achieve nothing more than a links look when collaborating on the design of Spanish Bay on the Monterey Peninsula. "We used decomposed granite which was quarried two miles away and brought down by a conveyor belt costing $1 million so as not to take trucks over the land," he said.

"Pete Dye (architect) got a great look at Whistling Straits. That's really a beautiful golf course. Thousands of bunkers and a sculpted look that's really spectacular, though I don't like the last hole. You don't have water on the last hole of a links golf course." Then, suddenly remembering the scene of his first Open triumph, he added with a smile: "Except at Carnoustie."

Looking down the practice range in Savannah with contoured mounding along the right, he continued: "You don't find rounded stuff like that on a links, where the land is sculpted by the wind." For him, there has been no better example of this than the ancient dunes of Ballybunion, yet he can still admire the modern look achieved at Kingsbarns, which he plans to visit prior to the Open.

"I don't have any plans right now to go back to Ireland, but its wonderful links land is never far from my thoughts. Seas pounding the shore and a bunch of sand dunes blown by wind and rain make for wonderful challenges. They separate real golfers. There's nothing quite like it."

In those words, we find the source of Watson's remarkable golfing longevity. He remains passionately in love with the game, especially when it is played in those special places by the sea, where wind and sky create a magic to stir the heart.

Sunday Independent

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