Tom Watson won five British Opens, but his near miss when he was 59 still endures

There is risk in all of that, of linking sport to spirits, of assigning meaning where there might be none. Tell that to anyone who watched Watson when he felt all those feelings and uttered all those words.

There was something out there. I still believe that.

This was at the 2009 British Open — the 2009 Open Championship to anyone on the eastern side of the Atlantic — on the Ailsa Course at Turnberry, in Ayrshire in the southwest of Scotland. It’s an event — and a place — where such sentiments seem suited. The British Open predates the Kentucky Derby, which first was staged in 1875. It predates England’s Football League, the precursor to the current English Premier League, which began in 1888. It predates the modern Olympics, first held in 1896.

It’s older than golf’s other major championships — the Masters, the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship, all relative babies. Think of it this way: There have been 83 Masters, and the mystique that Augusta National Golf Club assigns that event makes it seem unrivaled. The 83rd British Open, won by Aussie Peter Thomson at Royal Birkdale, was held in 1954. There have been 65 more since.

In a sport that reveres its history, there’s no questioning the spirits the Open conjures because they trace directly to the birth of the game. They were with Watson in 2009 at Turnberry, back when the creases in his face showed his 59 years, back when his replaced left hip held up for four rounds, back when he took hold of the British Open for 71½ holes.

“It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn’t it?” Watson said then. “It would have been a hell of a story.”

No, Tom. It is a hell of a story.

Both royal and ancient

The 2020 British Open was to be held this week at Royal St. George’s in the south of England; the novel coronavirus pandemic forced its cancellation. The PGA Tour is carrying on in Dublin, Ohio, which decidedly isn’t the British Isles, with the Memorial, a fine tournament that decidedly isn’t the British Open.

To get a sense of what we’re missing with no Open — no golf to flip on with breakfast, no wind and weather to monitor intensely, no centuries-old tales to tell — there are so many places and times to turn to.

To old Prestwick, which held the first Open back in 1860 and 11 straight after that — crowning Tom Morrises both Old and Young — but has long since been retired from the “rota,” the group of courses that regularly stage the event.

To St. Andrews, home to the Royal & Ancient, which oversees not only the tournament but the game itself in Europe. It’s where Tom Kidd first won in 1873 and the greats of the game — Scotland’s own five-time champion James Braid, English gentleman Nick Faldo, dashing Spaniard Seve Ballesteros and generational American stars Bobby Jones and Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods — all hoisted the claret jug at least once. All were declared, as the Open’s victor is annually, the Champion Golfer of the Year.

To Carnoustie, where in 1999 Frenchman Jean van de Velde stood on the 18th tee on the final day needing double-bogey 6 to win — and made triple-bogey 7. To Royal Troon, where in 2016 Henrik Stenson of Sweden and American Phil Mickelson played a riveting final round, combining for 14 birdies, an eagle and just two bogeys — a battle reminiscent of the 1977 “Duel in the Sun,” in which Watson beat Nicklaus by birdieing three of the final four holes, taking the title by a stroke. That duel was played on a Saturday afternoon, and as they approached the 16th tee, Watson said to his rival, “This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?”

That duel was at Turnberry, when Watson was 27, winning the second of his five Opens, second only to Harry Vardon’s six.

“It’s a place that brings back obviously great memories,” Watson said before the 2009 Open. “It brings back memories of elation, of good play.”

Watson said that as part of an enthralling 45-minute news conference in which he seemed more historian than competitor. The oldest player to win a major championship is Julius Boros, who was 48 when he took the 1968 PGA Championship. More than a decade on from that, Watson surely couldn’t contend. He was an elder statesman. At the time, the Royal & Ancient capped invitations at 60 unless a player qualifies through fine play. So Watson entered Turnberry figuring 2010 at St. Andrews would be his last British Open.

“Unless I play well at St. Andrews or play well here and maybe have a sixth championship under my belt after Sunday,” he said, to much laughter. “Now that would be a story, wouldn’t it?”

Links to history

I had never been to the British Open before 2009, when The Washington Post first sent me. The day before the event — after driving on the left side of the road from Glasgow, past Prestwick down the west coast of Scotland, through countless roundabouts, all harrowing — I had to see what I came for. I had to see the course, along the Firth of Clyde. I had to feel the Open.

During the practice round, I went to follow Tom Watson.

In brilliant sunshine, Watson played a practice round that day with young American Brandt Snedeker, a casual twosome. As they reached the 10th tee, Watson looked out into the flat sea and turned to his caddie, Neil Oxman.

“Pretty calm out there, isn’t it?” Watson said. He had seen it all at Turnberry, at all those Opens. Not only did he have that victory over Nicklaus 32 years earlier, but in 2003, as a 53-year-old, he had won the British Senior Open on that very course. He knew, standing on that tee box, that calm at the Open is temporary. There would, at some point, be wind. And he would, more than others, be ready.

There is something about the Open that is equalizing. In the current year, 26-year-old American Bryson DeChambeau is on the verge of breaking the game, beefing up his body to speed up his swing, thus blistering the ball past his competitors, averaging 323 yards with his driver.

That’s a game Watson couldn’t play in 2009, and he knew it. At the Masters, he felt like a ceremonial golfer because of the distance required to compete, and at that point he had made just one cut at Augusta since 1998. But on the links land of Scotland, golf is different. The ground isn’t something to be soared above — to be ignored, overpowered. Rather, it’s to be incorporated as an ally. Playing low shots with the right “weight” — as the Scots say, describing the oomph behind a swing that sends the ball the correct distance in the air but then allows it to bounce and roll through the swales and knolls — is required. As is creativity. As is patience. As is experience.

Only a year before at Royal Birkdale, Greg Norman, at 53, had led the Open with nine holes to play, only to falter. So as Watson played that Wednesday practice round with Snedeker, did he feel he had a chance?

“The quick answer is yes,” he said that day. “I felt that I could play the links golf courses. Even though they lengthened them some, I still have a chance here, unlike a course like Augusta.”

A story for everyone

The afternoon before the first round, Watson received a text from Barbara Nicklaus, wife of Jack, wishing him luck. He then went out and shot a 65, trailing only Spain’s Miguel Ángel Jiménez and only by a shot. The well wishes from Mrs. Nicklaus were why he said afterward, “I think there was some spirituality out there today.”

Every day of a golf tournament needs a story. On Thursday of the Open in 2009, Tom Watson was the story. Whether he could sustain such a high level of play for four rounds seemed dubious. His putting had long been streaky at its best, downright poor at its worst. The previous October, he had the hip replacement. Too much to overcome.

“Will I be able to handle the pressure?” Watson asked rhetorically after that first round. “I don’t know. I don’t know. Whether I’m in the hunt, who knows? The light switch may go on, and I may play without too much pressure, or the pressure may be too much to handle. But I’ve been there before.”

The next day, the wind came up, and Turnberry became too much for many. Woods had missed only one cut in a major in his professional career, yet he made two double bogeys on the back nine and missed the cut by a stroke. In one six-hole stretch on the front, Watson made five bogeys. Sergio García, one of his playing partners, approached after the tee shot at the eighth. “Come on, old man,” he said.

“I feel like an old man,” Watson responded.

With that, Watson found his form. He made a steadying birdie putt at 9, and then the course turned to play downwind. There were birdies to be found, even for a 59-year-old. But walking with the group that day, there was also something unmistakably communal about the entire affair.

The crowds at the Open are uncommonly knowledgeable. Their cheers are exactly commensurate with what transpired before them. Approach shots that land 30 feet from an inaccessible pin will be met warmly, even if, to the untrained eye, they seem unspectacular. Likewise, the truly extraordinary will produce a roar that belies exactly what took place. That’s what happened when Watson rolled in an impossibly long birdie putt on 16. That’s what happened when he jarred another bomb — from one side of the green to the other — at 18. When it dropped, García — Watson’s competitor — pumped his fist in excitement. Watson eventually half-bowed to the throngs.

“Walking down the fairways, walking up onto the greens, people showing their respect for me, showing my respect for them,” Watson said. “And it’s been since 1975 — 34 years — I’ve played links golf. And it’s a fabric of my life, I can tell you that.”

Take that line and serve it to the Scots, and they will eat it like a plate of haggis, drink it like a dram of whisky. After his second-round 70, Watson shared the lead with an unlikely character, Steve Marino of Northern Virginia, whose first round of links golf had come on the Tuesday before the competition.

By Saturday night, after a 71 left him at 4 under and with a one-shot lead over 28-year-old Englishman Ross Fisher and 35-year-old Australian Matthew Goggin, Watson was starting to feel it. All of Scotland was starting to feel it.

“If you went to the local clubs and pubs tonight,” Scott MacLeod, who lives in nearby Ayr, told me that evening, “99 out of 100 people would be for Tom Watson.”

This was an international headline that transcended sports. It became not only about beating competitors but about beating time itself. The Post ran Watson’s story, before the final round, on the front page. It was no longer about golf. It was about the spirit of the man trying to rekindle glory some three decades old and the spirits that were helping him do it.

“The first day here, yeah, let the old geezer have his day in the sun, you know, [with a] 65,” Watson said. “The second day, you said: ‘Well, that’s okay. That’s okay.’ And then now, today, you kind of perk up your ears and say, ‘This old geezer might have a chance to win the tournament.’ ”

Excruciatingly close

On the Sunday of the final round, Fisher opened with a birdie, Watson with a bogey, and the dream seemed — again — as if it might die. England’s Lee Westwood, so deserving of a major championship, made an eagle at 7 and surged into the lead.

Yet birdies at 7 and 11 had Watson hanging in there. Stewart Cink had made a 15-footer for birdie at the last to get into the clubhouse at 2 under. Westwood three-putted 18 to finish a shot behind Cink.

When Watson birdied the par-5 17th, he got to 3 under. He needed a par 4 at the last to finish one of the most inspiring stories in sports for a century — or more? Why put the limits of time on a tale that was about defeating it?

After Watson hit a pure tee shot on 18, I headed up to the green to watch his approach, to drink in his coronation. He was, we would learn later, slightly between clubs — a 9-iron might not be enough, and he wanted to make sure he got the ball to a pin slightly toward the back of the green. He went with an 8.

“I caught it just the way I wanted to,” Watson said.

In the air, it looked perfect. Yet when it bounced at the front of the green, it sounded as if it hit something hollow. I’ll never forget inhaling in astonishment as the ball hopped — to my eye — farther than it should have. It bounced again. It rolled past the pin. It settled down a slope, up against the fringe of the rough.

Watson elected to putt it, and in his zeal to get it up the slope he blew it past the pin. And here, really, it was over. He had eight feet left, the same eight feet his younger self had rolled in so fearlessly, the same eight feet that, following decades of misses, made him jittery. The putt he struck was weak and ugly. The putt he struck never had a chance. He made bogey, and there would be a four-hole playoff with Cink.

By then, it was not a contest. Watson bogeyed the first playoff hole. By the third, No. 17 — which he had just birdied to take the lead — he was fried. His legs weren’t under him. Cink made a birdie. Watson made a double bogey. On the 18th tee, I crouched close to a trash bin near the tee box and looked up at Watson. Clearly, there were tears in his eyes. The walk up the 18th green, cap doffed, was for Cink and Cink alone. In four holes, Cink was six shots better than the old man.

“I’m engulfed by joy, for sure,” Cink said. “I can understand, though, the mystique that came really close to developing here and the story.”

When Watson walked into a silent media tent afterward, he sat down and said, “This ain’t a funeral, you know.” In the aftermath, as for 71½ holes, he was in complete control.

Yet 59-year-old Tom Watson at the 2009 Open wasn’t a ceremonial golfer. He was every bit a competitor. As such, he was gutted.

“It wasn’t to be,” he said. “And, yes, it’s a great disappointment. It tears at your gut, as it always has torn at my gut. It’s not easy to take.”

Eleven years later, maybe it’s still not. But the tournament that tore at Watson’s gut was still one of the defining memories of one of the oldest events in sports. For four days, Watson taught us age doesn’t have to define us. Cink goes down, rightly, as the Champion Golfer of 2009. But it was Tom Watson’s week and Tom Watson’s tournament, then as now, when we have no British Open to look forward to.

Read more from The Post: