A senior moment

Back on the seniors tour after nearly winning the British Open, self-styled "old fogey" Tom Watson says he is happy to have eaten his own words.

Tom Watson will try again next year for the British Open.
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Back on the seniors tour after nearly winning the British Open, self-styled "old fogey" Tom Watson says he is happy to have eaten his own words. "When I was 40 I frankly said: 'I'll never play golf after I'm 50'," the American said last week at the Senior British Open in Sunningdale, where he finished tied for eighth place, five shots off the lead. Instead of putting away his clubs, Watson, at the age of 59, went to Turnberry for the British Open, defied his years as the oldest man in the field, and nearly won a record-equalling sixth open title.

Friend and former rival Jack Nicklaus, who is 10 years Watson's senior, was quick to put his countryman straight about his pronouncement nearly two decades ago. "Nicklaus laughed at me when I said that. 'Look at me. I said the same thing and I still play'," said Watson, who is in action again this week in the US Senior Open at Crooked Stick, Indiana, though his preparations were hampered by a stomach bug.

Watson and Nicklaus, among the fiercest competitors on the tour in their heyday, had many great battles, the most famous being the 1977 British Open at Turnberry, which was won by Watson in a tournament that became known as the "Duel in the Sun". Nicklaus, who won 18 majors, played professionally until four years ago while Watson, on recent form, still has a fire burning. "It's too much in your blood," said the eight-time major winner, who had a hip replacement last year.

"The competition is too much there. And we have the only game where you can continue, so why not take advantage of it? "You may think that 59-year-olds shouldn't be there but I've said a bunch of times that Sam Snead could play great golf when he was in his 70s. He could flat play. His putter wasn't very good, but boy could he play." Snead, who died in 2002 aged 89, won seven majors between 1942 and 1954 and remains the oldest player to win a PGA tour event at 52 and is one example of golfing longevity.

South African nine-time major winner Gary Player, 73 and also in the Senior British Open field last week, is another. Watson, a former world No 1, puts his spirited Open performance earlier this month, which ended with him losing a play-off to compatriot Stewart Cink, down to luck. "My mum and dad were flexible and were in good shape for well into their 70s. I came from good genes there," he said, smiling as he did for every hole he played at Turnberry.

He was also full of praise for the Champions (seniors) Tour, which was founded in 1980 and enables golfers to play competitively after reaching 50 and to keep earning large sums of money. German Bernhard Langer, 51 and twice US Masters champion, leads the 2009 tour money standings with US$1,590,086 (Dh5.8m) in winnings. "Our senior tour has kept me active in the game. That's why I'm out here," said Watson.

Would the world No 102 have enough in the tank to compete at the Aug 13-16 US PGA Championship in Hazeltine, Minnesota, perhaps his last chance to add the one major he has never won? "Right now I wouldn't hold my breath that I'm going to be playing the PGA," he said, chuckling at suggestions that with another fine run he could break into the top 10 in the world rankings having leaped a record 1,269 places following his Turnberry exploits.

If Watson does not need a break, his computer certainly does. "My computer no longer has enough memory to operate with all of the Emails I have received," he said. "My wife has received contacts from people all over the world, from way back in our lives, and it's been a remarkable couple of days of reliving some memories and talking to friends and old acquaintances. "What puts it in perspective is, very frankly, a series of contacts from people I met when I went to Iraq."

Watson went to the Middle East country two years ago on a United Service Organisations (USO) tour to support the American troops in the region and showing them how to play golf. "There was one message from Leroy Petry, a young man who is up for a...Medal of Honour, who saved a bunch of lives by taking a pretty direct hit from a grenade that he was trying to throw. It went off right in his hand. That's perspective."

Watson credited the senders of the messages for helping him to get over his near-miss in the Open, where he held a one-stroke lead going into the 72nd hole but, after a bogey, lost the play-off. "'When you're in a neck-high bunker and you have a four-footer, remember it's just a game' they said." Come next July, however, Watson certainly will not view golf as "just a game". He will, instead, be trying his utmost for victory at St Andrews, having never won the British Open's Claret Jug on the famous Old Course.

* Reuters