One part of Tom Watson’s career is ending next month at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, where he will compete in his 38th and final British Open. He’s approaching it, he said, “a little bit like death.”
Indeed, that chapter of his golf life is ending, but his game is still very much alive and kicking, and he hopes to prove that this week when he makes his 14th U.S. Senior Open start, at Del Paso Country Club. Watson, 65, has been runner-up three times in this championship, most recently in 2006. In 2007, he led going into the final round at Whistling Straits before finishing fourth.
He’s been waiting a long time for an encore to the 1982 U.S. Open title he won 200 miles southwest of here at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links, where he famously chipped in for birdie on the 71st hole to beat Jack Nicklaus. He’s just stubborn enough – and still talented enough – to believe it isn’t too late to capture a second USGA crown.
“[I have] the illusion that I can still do it and still hit the shots. And every now and then, I can,” said Watson, who won the most recent of his 14 Champions Tour titles in the 2011 Senior PGA Championship. “I kind of surprise myself that I can get into a good stretch of golf where I'm hitting a lot of good quality shots. I've been able to do that throughout my career, and I'm still under the illusion that I can still get it done now at age 65, and I can have that stretch of golf where I'm playing well enough to have some satisfaction that I'm doing it the right way and doing it well, and that would allow me to compete. I love to compete.”
Loving competition and being competitive go hand in glove. It’s hard to enjoy competition if you’re not figuring in the championship late on a Sunday afternoon. Watson, who has only played in a handful of tournaments this year, including his 42nd start in the Masters, is somewhat optimistic about his prospects for working himself into the picture.
A player of his experience and caliber knows when he is playing well – or when he is about to play well.
“I'm hitting enough good shots really well, but I'm not hitting it very consistently, not often enough,” he said. “And if I can get into that stretch where … I consistently am hitting the shots that I'm hitting occasionally or more than occasionally on the practice range, it's good. I feel like I'm pretty close, but it's just not quite there. Maybe it will all fall in place sometime during this week, and then it will be off to the races.”
Few golfers of any era have had greater longevity than Watson, a Kansas native who attended Stanford University. His 39 PGA Tour wins included eight majors – five in the British Open.
He almost won a sixth. In 2009, at the age of 59, a bogey on the 72nd hole dropped him into a tie with Stewart Cink. With nothing left in the tank, he lost in a four-hole playoff.
“Just beside the fact that Tom has always been a very good player, he's got great experience,” said Hale Irwin, 70, a three-time U.S. Open champion and two-time U.S. Senior Open champion whose game remained strong well into his Champions Tour career. “He hits the ball still quite long. He's been a great manager of himself and his game.
“When you come to these kinds of events, how you manage yourself is maybe the most important of all the disciplines. “If you can manage your emotions … manage your highs and lows and keep sort of on that equilibrium, then you're not going to fall through thin ice. You're going to stay on top. Tom, in my estimation, of all the things that Tom has done very, very, very well in his career, I think he's managed himself very well.”
Watson’s explanation is much simpler. “Good genes,” he said with a laugh.
“Mom and dad gave me a good, pretty much injury-free body. My golf swing, I have a pretty long golf swing. If you have a pretty long golf swing, you can still generate some power. It's been good for me over my years and into my later years in my career,” he said. “Again, I hope it's not just an illusion. I hope there's a reality factor this week in my game. There is a bit of uncertainty about how I'm going to play in my own mind, but I feel it's there if it shows. Somehow, I've got to get it to show.”
And when he does, what a show it still can be.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work regularly appears on USGA websites.