Watson adheres to omerta of Muirfield
Legend joins host of stars in keeping mum over club's ban on women, writes Oliver Brown
Tom Watson is telling a story that illuminates not just Muirfield's eccentricity, but also its antediluvian attitude towards women.
The year was 1980, and the great sage had just plotted his path to the third of five Claret Jugs with a majestic four-shot victory over Lee Trevino. It was a feat worthy of celebration, and he and Ben Crenshaw duly took to Lothian's most venerable links for a two-hole match with hickory-shafted clubs.
Except that their wives also decided to come along in high-heeled shoes.
"We were having a grand time," recalls Watson. "We had just decided to play a couple of extra holes once the tournament was over and the ladies were there, too. Paddy Hamner was the secretary at the time, and he was clearly a little perturbed at seeing Polly Crenshaw aerating the greens in her four-inch heels. He said to Ben, 'Be in my office at 6.45 sharp tomorrow morning, Mr Crenshaw'."
It seems an apt moment to ask Watson about Muirfield's exclusion of female members, but at this point his facade of geniality fractures.
At the reminder that the club used to employ a uniformed policeman to enforce the gentleman-only rule in the smoking room, he says: "I'm not going to comment on that." So he believes that it is a matter for the committee to decide? "No comment. Sorry."
This code of silence is of a piece with the remarks by Watson's fellow grandees in the game. Nick Faldo, whom Watson partners in today's must-watch three-ball alongside Fred Couples, has been sneeringly dismissive of a similar question, almost as if 'women' has become a taboo word in this postcode. "That's for the club to decide," he claims. Tiger Woods is similarly unhelpful: "I don't make the policies."
Watson's reticence is especially curious, given his traditional casting as the wise old owl from Kansas City who will take on any subject and spin you a folksy yarn to go with it. We can be assured that Peter Dawson, the R&A's chief executive, will endure a sustained and unpleasant cross-examination about Muirfield's exclusionary position at a press conference this morning.
And yet a five-time British Open champion insists he has no contribution to the debate. Still, so sternly does the 63-year-old shut down this avenue of inquiry that it seems prudent to move on to safer ground.
He is far more garrulous about the challenges of Muirfield itself, which he recently identified as his favourite links of all. Bill Dwyre of the 'Los Angeles Times' has likened the blend of fast fairways, high rough and a devilishly capricious wind to "sweet torture", and Watson is not minded to demur.
"There are two elements of Muirfield very prominent in everybody's minds," he explains. "The first is this high fescue rough off to the sides, where you can lose a ball even with a shot that is only slightly wayward. The second is the bunkers. When I won in '80, I was putting the best I ever had in my life.
"But the essence of my game plan that entire week had been to avoid all the fairway bunkers. Either stay short of them, or don't hit a driver. As it turned out, I only ended up in one of them, and this was crucial because every bunker here is in a treacherous position."
There's a wistfulness about Watson. For all his nuanced knowledge acquired from a lifetime of mastery of this form of the game, he has acknowledged that his agonising near-miss at Turnberry in 2009 still "tears at his guts".
But for one over-hit nine-iron to the 18th denying him a par-four for victory, he would have engineered quite possibly the greatest sporting narrative of all, winning a sixth British Open at 59.
"This too shall pass," he declared in the aftermath, and his reflections four years on are equally sanguine. "I'm lucky. And I am humble, because I'm able to play a game for a living."
Does he believe he is capable of mustering one last tilt at glory?
"Oh, it was a struggle in my practice round," he groans, with a faint smile. "The old body was hurting. It was showing the effects of the flight over.
"Seriously, I'm not there yet in terms of knowing what the ball is going to do when it hits the ground, because I haven't played links golf for a while. To get the feel for it back, that's what I'm lacking right now.
"Certain times I did – on the 17th I hit a three-iron from 270 yards and it finished 30 feet short of the hole. So I'm building on that."
Watson, of course, faces other priorities, not least assembling the US Ryder Cup team for next autumn's confrontation at Gleneagles. But as a comfort for his legions of Scottish disciples, the restlessness for individual distinction is self-evident.
"My old caddie, Bruce Edwards – God rest his soul, he is no longer with us – used to tell people, 'When Tom says "I've got it", that's when I know I am in for a good week'.
"I last said those words in 1994, when I made a swing discovery that allowed me to hit my low shots better. And those words have carried me ever since." (© Daily Telegraph, London)