Tom Watson broke into a throaty chuckle as he listened to a description of the weather at Turnberry. Outside the clubhouse, where numerous images of the eight-time Major Champion beam down benevolently from the walls, the rain tapped insidiously against the window pane and, a few yards beyond, the 18th green flag cowered at a 45 degree angle against the bone-chilling wind.
“Just my kind of weather,” laughed Watson down the phone line as he participated in a conference call with the media to discuss the 2012 Senior Open Championship presented by Rolex and his enduring love affair with the Ailsa Course at Turnberry.
With typical humour, Watson gently chided the media ‘pack’ listening attentively to every word. “You guys playing today?” he asked, continuing: “Doesn’t sound as if too many of you are in a hurry to get to the first tee!”
In the event, the unseasonably cold and damp weather relented and suddenly Turnberry was bathed in glorious sunlight, just as it was those 35 years ago when the freckle-faced kid from Kansas went toe-to-toe with Jack Nicklaus for the 1977 Open Championship. The Golden Bear was in the prime of life, but he had to succumb to the brash, young upstart on that day of days – the iconic Duel in the Sun.
Turnberry has been both an alluring seductress and a cruel mistress to Watson. That Open in 1977 aside, he captured his first Senior Open title over the Ailsa Course in 2003 then suffered that final hole calamity in the most recent Open there three years ago. One par from immortality and a champion again at the age of 59. It wasn’t to be. A bogey five – where 32 years earlier he had made three at the final hole – enabled Stewart Cink to squeeze through by the side door.
Watson and Turnberry go together like Ailsa Craig and the famous Lighthouse, two of the familiar landmarks, along with the majestic Five Star Hotel, which combine to give Turnberry its fame and deserved popularity among golfing glitterati everywhere.
Despite missing out to Cink, 23 years his junior, and been forced to gaze forlornly at the Claret Jug he might have felt was rightfully his for a sixth time, Watson’s love for Turnberry burns as brightly as ever as he edges towards his 63rd birthday.
“That week only increased by love for the place” insisted Watson, who will line up in search of a fourth Senior Open crown from July 26 to 29. The response he received from so many people – people who thought they were too old to play golf anymore but were moved to play the game again after watching my performance that week – was uplifting.
“Going into the week I was playing very well but my putting was poor. Then on Tuesday I changed my putting and started to make everyone. I told my wife: ‘I can win this tournament’. It wasn’t just a bragging statement.
“Of course, on the Sunday night I was distraught. It tears your guts out when something like that happens. When the ball was in the air at the 27nd hole I said: ‘Just like 77’. It was going right at the flag but with the uncertainty of links golf maybe a gust of wind took it a bit further than it was meant to.
“I felt extreme disappointment, but one good was the response from around the world. I had thousands of people writing to me on a common theme, that they had quite golf because they felt too old but I had given them hope to work at it and go back and try again.”
Watson’s chances of winning again – he also triumphed at Muirfield and Royal Aberdeen at Senior level to add to his four Open Claret Jugs gained on Scottish soil – could depend on how quickly he recovers from a hand injury.
The three-time champion has spent a few days on a whistle-stop tour of the UK, taking in Royal Lytham and St.Annes in the process where he discussed the 2012 Championship with the new Presenting Sponsor, Rolex, The R&A and the European Senior Tour Managing Director Andy Stubbs.
He added: “I’m not in very good stead at the moment because I have a never strength problem in my right hand. It was caused by mowing for a number of hours at my farm in Kansas. I woke up the next day with a little bit of soreness in my neck and three days later my strength in my right hand was diminished greatly. I can’t grip the club properly but the doctors say the strength will come back in time.
“I assume I will be ready and able to play in July and Turnberry will give me another of those great challenges to win again.”
As the wind abated and Turnberry glistened in the sunshine and stiff breeze, Watson must aloud about that expanse of green just outside the window.
“That 18th has sure seen some drama, hasn’t it?” he asked rhetorically. “I remember here at the Senior Open in 2003 I was very lucky to get into a play-off but Carl Mason made a mistake at the 18th and that let me in.”
A few minutes later and Watson signed off, again urging his attentive audience to get out and sample the course which has brought him so many memories. No-one can wait until Master and his Mistress are reunited in just over two months time.
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