It was lucky 13 for Tom Watson as he overcame a double bogey finish to capture The Senior Open Championship, presented by Aberdeen Asset Management, for his second Open triumph at Muirfield and the 13th Major victory of a stellar career.
Watson proved his credentials and talent for links golf remain as brilliant as ever after he won a record equalling third Senior Open, by one shot from Stewart Ginn and Mark O’Meara.
After another tense day at windswept Muirfield, Watson emerged from his battle with both of his final round playing partners with a closing 73 for a level par 284 72 hole total, and beamed: “I had a good feeling all day.”
The eight times Major Champion also revealed he drew on his experience of his five past Open victories – and especially the one at Muirfield in 1980 – to see him through.
“A lot of the same thoughts came back,” he said. “The tee shot at 12, the tee shot at 18. I birdied the 11th in 1980 and again today. That gave me a lot of breathing room. In ’80 it gave me a five or four shot lead, and today it gave me a three shot lead. It was a big deal.”
After a nip and tuck tussle between the trio, and other challengers including Eduardo Romero and Sam Torrance, Watson stood on the 18th tee at two under par possessing that three shot lead over his immediate rivals.
However, to seal his win, the 57 year old American golf legend had to survive a mini-wobble when he drove in the left hand fairway bunker.
Watson admitted: “I thought ‘what am I doing in here? Let’s get the job done.’ I didn’t have much opportunity with first shot, and I didn’t get out far enough and it rolled back in the bunker. But it rolled back far enough in where I had a shot sideways, so I knocked it out sideways and got it up around the fringe of the green.”
When both O’Meara and Ginn, the overnight leader by one shot, missed their birdie efforts to force a play-off, Watson had two putts for the title and €234,640 (£157,800) first prize.
He duly took them, hitting his first to within two feet, and then firmly sank the second for a double bogey six that was still enough for him to triumph and emulate Gary Player in winning a third Senior Open Championship.
However, Watson admitted he was ready for a play-off, but was still positive about that possibility. He said he was not thinking about blowing a three shot lead, or the way he also let the US Senior Open slip three weeks ago, when he led with nine holes to go but shot 43 over them to finish fourth.
“It wouldn’t have been tough going into a play-off because I was always prepared for it, just like I was prepared in ’77 at The Open at Turnberry for Jack to make that putt, which he did. I expected those two guys, each time they putted to make it. I was prepared to go in the play-off.”
It wasn’t necessary – and delighted Watson spoke of his joy at getting the US Senior Open monkey off his back.
“It was really disappointing but as I said when I came here, I wanted to make amends for that. It was important to be able to get it done when you have to. It didn’t look like it on 18 but as is customary in my career, when I’ve had some bad tournaments where I’ve lost the lead or lost something, traditionally, I’ve come back very quickly. I hate failure. I wanted to get even.”
He added: “I had a good feeling all day. The weather was right up my alley, good blowy conditions, a little rain here and there. But the beauty of the place, I just feel very comfortable. And when you feel comfortable, you don’t get too nervous.”
Australian runner-up Ginn, who also moves to second spot on the European Seniors Tour Order of Merit, reflected after his 75 and one over par 285 total: “I’m still very happy with how I’ve done. I had two Open Champions hunting me. I played well until the turn and the run of bogeys on 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 was a killer. I got a little bit runny there.
“I hit it on the wrong side on 10 and 11 and went in the bunkers, and then I three-putted 13 and 14 and that was it. But it happens. I hung in there, which is what you have to do. The golfing gods didn’t desert me and I had a chance. I’ve lost to a great player – a five times Open Champion. Going in the mix with Tom and Mark, two greats, at my age, is fantastic.”
O’Meara, Open Champion in 1998 at Royal Birkdale, shot 72 and added: “I would say my ball striking was about five, at best six. I grinded and fought hard and hit the ball okay and I didn’t throw any shots away on the greens, which was key. But Tom’s played smart all week – his caddie’s done a great job – and he hits the ball so solid. There’s no disgrace losing to him at all.”
Watson took the outright lead for the first time in the Championship, after 60 holes, and the Senior Open was moving into sight.
It certainly did at the tenth tee, where the Senior Claret Jug was tantalisingly sat resplendent in the sunlight. Not one player allowed themselves to be caught looking at it, yet perhaps subconsciously having it so close filtered into their mindset, as, on an already tough driving hole, with the wind sweeping balls right, Ginn found a right fairway bunker, while Watson found the rough and ended up with a double bogey six on the toughest hole of the Championship all week.
Up ahead, Romero had birdied the 11th to get back to one over par, the score he started on. The Argentine had bogeyed the first hole but hit back with consecutive birdies at holes five and six, only to drop shots at nine and then ten.
However, having got news that namesake and fellow countryman Andres Romero had captured his maiden European Tour title – The Deutsche Bank Players’ Championship of Europe – the big-hitting 53 year old rallied with his birdie three at 11.
However, Romero’s challenge ended on the 17th, when , seeking an eagle, he pulled his second shot and took three more to get out of thick rough en route to costly double bogey seven. He eventually signed for 74 and tied fourth finish, but has moved to first place on the European Seniors Tour Order or Merit.
As well as Ginn and Romero, other European Seniors Tour members saw their challenges undone.
Crowd favourite Sam Torrance had the support of his fellow Scots – and raucous cheers that reverberated around the first corner of the East Lothian links, greeted his birdie three on the third hole. However, bogeys at six, seven, eight a double bogey on 15 and dropped shot on 16, derailed him.
Torrance signed for a 76 and 291 total, tying for tenth place, as did Ireland’s Des Smyth and Gordon J Brand following their 74 and 76 rounds.
Nick Faldo, co-leader after day one, had to wait until the 17th to register his first birdie of the day, but by that stage he was nine over par, not helped by an ugly seven at the 12th. His birdie helped the three times Open Champion back to eight over par, which he finished on after a par.
It ensured Faldo’s senior debut ended on an at least a positive note, and talking about it, he said: “I’m chuffed. I hit a three wood and had 214 left, so hit three iron, and had 213 in ’92 when I won here, and nearly made three, so that’s made my week.
“I hit a couple of good shots today and played the best I could, but struggled with the putter, so I’ve got to go away and work on that before I venture out competitively again. But I have enjoyed this week. It’s been great to be here at Muirfield, to come back here. Especially with that last shot, I can leave with a smile on my face.”
He wasn’t the only one, as South African Hugh Baiocchi, who shot the best round of the Championship on the final day with his 67, picked up £5,000 after finishing the leading player over 60 competing.
Championship organisers were also celebrating, after record crowds attended the four days of the Senior Open.