Thursday 22 August 2019

Sands of time run out on great career

Tom Watson expressed regret about a missed opportunity as Ballybunion’s millennium captain: ‘I wish I could have played there under championship conditions when they held the Irish Open in 2000’. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters
Tom Watson expressed regret about a missed opportunity as Ballybunion’s millennium captain: ‘I wish I could have played there under championship conditions when they held the Irish Open in 2000’. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters

Dermot Gilleece

Bunker grief for the game's elite would have prompted some wry smiles among Royal Lytham members last weekend, especially when the most celebrated victim happened to be Tom Watson. The winner of five Open titles was saying farewell to the Senior British Open, which he captured on three occasions.

Devotees of links golf will always hold Watson in the highest regard, not least for his dignified acceptance of a heartbreaking miss at Turnberry in 2009. That was when, less than two months short of his 60th birthday, he came within a seven-foot putt on the 72nd green of becoming the oldest winner of a Major title.

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Now, 10 years on and with the remarkable Bernhard Langer once more triumphant as a senior at 62, Watson has decided it's time to drift into the golfing sunset. But not before a few well-chosen words about Lytham's notorious bunkers, especially those guarding the 18th.

For the player attempting to protect a score, most of Lytham's 169 bunkers - that's 110 more than the revised Royal Portrush - seem to be concentrated on the finishing hole. As Watson observed: "All you see out there is just fairway bunkers, there, there, there, there, there, there, there and there. And I didn't negotiate them very well this week."

Christy O'Connor famously found one of them, on the left, when needing a four to tie in the 1958 Open. As Pat Ward-Thomas reported: "O'Connor made a brave attempt to get it down in two from 80 yards. He just failed to hole a long putt for a four." Which left Peter Thomson to beat Dave Thomas in a play-off for the title.

More recently, Lytham's members have become guardians of a dark secret regarding their ubiquitous traps. It concerns the club's record holder for bunker-bother, an 11-handicapper whose identity is not disclosed. His denouement came in a club competition in which he battled bravely to avoid a "no return".

Because of foul weather last Sunday, Watson was in a three-ball off the 10th tee which meant finishing on the short 164-yard ninth. There, at the scene of Paul McGinley's hole-in-one in the second round of the 1996 Open, he found the heart of the green and two-putted for a solid par.

Our intrepid 11-handicapper also got down in two putts. Prior to that, however, he played no fewer than 28 strokes with an additional one-stroke penalty, for a total of 31 on the hole. Most of these were executed in four of the nine bunkers which encircle the green. And I'm informed that the unkindest cut was to have a successful escape with his 17th stroke, land on a bone-bare lie, from where he skulled it back into the sand whence it came. He eventually signed for a round of 135.

Bunkers were always critical to Lytham's defence, to the extent that it's believed there were once no fewer than 365 of them, one for every day of the year. And they numbered more than 200 when Ernie Els won the last Open there in 2012.

A joyous aspect of Watson's career is how much he delighted in playing the game. "The thrill of competing is tremendous, and the vibes I felt from supporters and my peers during the week at Turnberry [2009] will never go away," he said. "After all, you lose in this game more often than you win. A lot more often. I've always been able to take defeat or disappointment and make lemonade out of it."

Of all his successes, the 1977 'Duel in the Sun' against Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry stands apart. "For me, that was the ultimate because I was playing against the best golfer in the world," he said. "That was where I wanted to be. Going behind and being able to come back and eventually winning, that was really something. It made me think I could play with the best in the world from then on."

Then there was the mischief. Like a charming story he allowed to do the rounds for 22 years, knowing it wasn't true. It alleged that he fell foul of Muirfield's redoubtable secretary, Paddy Hanmer, a retired Royal Navy captain, because of an incident in the wake of his 1980 Open victory there. "I wasn't kicked out of here," he told me with a smile on his return in 2002. "That was [Ben] Crenshaw. It's always repeated that I was part of the story, but I wasn't. I was already eating."

Watson was supposed to have joined Crenshaw, Tom Weiskopf and their respective wives back on the course on the Sunday evening, when the men played the 17th and 18th with old hickory clubs.

"The problem was that Penny Crenshaw was aerating the 18th green with stiletto heels," Watson added. "My understanding is that Captain Hanmer came out and said to Ben: 'Mr Crenshaw, this is not allowed. I want you in my office at 6.45 tomorrow morning.' I don't know what transpired after that, except that it made for a wonderful, wonderful story."

He also expressed regret about a missed opportunity as Ballybunion's millennium captain. "I wish I could have played there under championship conditions when they held the Irish Open in 2000," he said. "But there was a conflict with senior commitments in the States."

So it was that having played the Irish Open at Woodbrook in August 1975, a competitive return to Irish soil didn't happen until his Senior British Open debut at Royal Co Down in 2002. A year later, he emulated Bob Charles and Gary Player by becoming only the third player to win the Open and Senior Open at the same venue, when he triumphed at Turnberry.

He played Royal Portrush for the first time in 2004 and retained vivid recollections of the experience when I spoke to him during The Open two weeks ago. "The new holes work beautifully," he added.

Though his first Open at Lytham in 1979 was completed with an 81, he managed to make the cut, just as he did last weekend. After 38 Opens, he departs the Senior Open having made the cut in all 18 appearances. As you would expect from the supreme competitor he has always been.

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