Memories of arguably the most captivating Open Championship of the modern era will come to the fore this week when Tom Watson tees up at The Westin Turnberry Resort as defending champion of the £1m Senior British Open Championship, presented by Aberdeen Asset Management.
Watson and Turnberry have been inextricably linked ever since the American confirmed himself as one of the world’s best players with victory over Jack Nicklaus in the ‘Duel in the Sun’ Open Championship of 1977.
Almost 30 years on from that coruscating climax in Ayrshire and the picturesque Ailsa Course is once again bathed in sunshine for the 20th staging of The Senior British Open Championship, where an outstanding field of 144 senior golfers will tee off with Watson aiming to match Gary Player’s record of three victories in the tournament.
Watson’s first triumph came, entirely appropriately, at Turnberry when he defeated England’s Carl Mason in a play-off to win The 2003 Senior British Open Championship and at the same time revive memories of the match play scenario that saw him beat Nicklaus all those years earlier.
He then added a second title with victory over Ireland’s Des Smyth at Royal Aberdeen last year, driving home his advantage after the Irishman had erred by finding a bunker at the third hole of their sudden-death play-off.
That success represented Watson’s sixth Major on a Scottish links and this week’s return to Turnberry, undoubtedly the happiest of all those hunting grounds in the Home of Golf, fills the 56 year old with a keen sense of anticipation.
After confirming his enduring skills by finishing tied 48th in The Open at Royal Liverpool Golf Club with a total of level par, Watson said: “I’ve been getting prepared for next week, seeing if I can get my game under control. Even though I made the cut at The Open, I’ve been negotiating my way around the course. My game was not quality and tee to green I will need to play much better at Turnberry. But I have played some of my best golf there in the past.”
Standing in his way of a third triumph on the Ailsa Course is a hugely impressive field that includes one of the strongest ever American line-ups for Europe’s Senior Major. Hale Irwin, winner of ten Majors in total, and Jay Haas, winner of the 2006 US Senior PGA Championship and the current money leader on the US Champions Tour, are set to make their debuts while others heading to Scotland include Peter Jacobsen, John A Jacobs, Tom Kite, Gil Morgan, Jerry Pate, Loren Roberts, Scott Simpson, Craig Stadler and Fuzzy Zoeller.
Add in the incomparable Gary Player of South Africa and Bob Charles of New Zealand, who between them have won this title five times, and the Europeans know they have a fight on their hands if they are to wrest the trophy back.
No-one will have more backing from the Turnberry galleries in this bid than proud Scot Sam Torrance, the 2005 European Seniors Tour Number One and the winner of two titles already this year.
Alongside Torrance at the forefront of the European challenge will by Mark James of England, another former Ryder Cup Captain, Mason and Smyth, both of whom have finished runner-up to Watson; and Christy O’Connor Jnr of Ireland, a former Ryder Cup player and two-time winner of The Senior British Open Championship.
It’s an intoxicating cocktail with which to toast this distinguished Championship as it enters its third decade, at the venue where it all began back in 1987, when England’s Neil Coles lifted the inaugural title.