ST ANDREWS, Scotland // In the year approaching his 60th birthday Tom Watson said young golf enthusiasts approached him with the message: "My grandmother loves you." Now in his seventh decade, Watson is appealing to a different audience. Four rounds of mesmerising golf in the 2009 British Open at Turnberry have transformed Watson from grand old man of the game to a genuine hero of the current era.
It still saddens seasoned observers to reflect how agonisingly close Watson came to victory at the Open 12 months ago. He needed to make an eight-foot putt on the 72nd green to win his sport's oldest and most glamorous tournament for the sixth time - 26 years after his fifth. The putt, a lousy putt as Watson described it, dribbled wide of the hole. Stewart Cink prevailed over the exhausted Watson in the ensuing four-hole play-off and what would have been a wonderful sporting fairy tale was consigned to the realms of might-have-beens.Watson was the most gracious of losers.
Now, at a time when searching questions are constantly being asked about the behaviour of Tiger Woods, the man who was the best player on the planet from 1978 to 1982 continues to be as magnanimous and humble as ever. "I have had some wonderful experiences throughout my career and last year was one of them," Watson said yesterday after being buffeted by a capricious wind and soaked by relentless morning rain during his third and final practice round.
"It would be another great experience if I could do well here as a 60-year-old. The loss last year was hard to take. As I said at the time, it tore my guts up. But my guts have been torn up many times here and there. "It will be a memory for me for evermore but it is the way people have responded to it that has been the most positive thing for me." The eight-time major winner will be making his seventh appearance at St Andrews when he steps out on to the first tee at the Old Course this morning alongside Padraig Harrington, the dual Open winner, and Ryo Ishikawa, the highly rated Japanese teenager. It is also likely to be his last appearance. His exemption as a former champion expires at Royal Liverpool in 2014 and the Open does not return to St Andrews before then.
"I feel the same today as when I first played this course in 1978," he said. "There are just certain things that are very difficult to comprehend when you're out at St Andrews - certain shots and certain places to go. That's how I felt back then, and that's how I feel now. You have to learn how to play this course and then re-learn over and over again every time you come back." Watson was speaking before an emotional reunion of other former winners of this showpiece event - the Champions Challenge - to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the tournament. Sadly, the weather wrecked the plans of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club organisers to stage a four-hole team contest involving 26 men who have held the Claret Jug between 1954, when Peter Thomson claimed the first of his five victories, and 2009.
Watson, who was due to play with fellow American Tom Weiskopf and a back-to-form Ernie Els, spoke about a chat with his own idol, Arnold Palmer, on Tuesday evening. "When I grew up, I was a member of 'Arnie's Army', and then Jack [Nicklaus] came along and beat Arnie, so I couldn't stand Jack," said Watson. "I said, 'Arnie, the only reason I beat Nicklaus all those times is because he beat you'. He got a laugh out of that."
Nothing could be further from the truth than Watson's assertion that he hated Nicklaus. The two intense rivals became great friends and are still remembered for their magnificent "Duel in the Sun" at Turnberry in 1977 when the emerging Watson defeated the "Golden Bear" by a single stroke. Nicklaus was one of the few surviving Open champions not in attendance for the celebrations. Seve Ballesteros was another as the Spaniard continues his slow recovery from brain surgery.
"Seve sent us a short video message," said Watson. "He said, 'I wish I could be there. I wish I had the energy to be there,' and he wished us all the best of luck. It was sad to see him like that. He is obviously struggling at this point." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org