by Jeff Skinner
Tom Watson is in the midst of a career renewal thanks to his desire to show his son that he still has what it takes and thanks to a little tournament called the Open Championship at Turnberry. He not only captivated the golf and sports world as he tried to win a major at 59 years old, he had half the world tuned to their TV sets as he tried to make history in a most amazing way. Watson is a Hall of Fame golfer that is known to the younger generation of golfers as the old guy that almost won The Open.
He’s a bit more than that. Watson won seven major championships including five Open Championships. He talked about that win and a little more at the Dicks’s Sporting Goods Open today.
He is making his first visit in 35 years to upstate New York at the En-Joie Golf Course in Endicott which previously hosted the PGA Tour’s BC Open. He is fresh off a win at The Senior PGA Championship. Watson says he stays on tour because he stills “just loves the competition.”
I asked him about the differences between today’s tour and how it was when he broke in on tour back in the early 70’s. He thinks the tour players of today have it a bit easier than he and his contemporaries did when he was making his way on to the tour.
“The difference is, first of all, qualifying to get on the Tour is different. We had two qualifications to get on the Tour, now there are three and they may even change that and I hope they don’t. We had to play under the old top 60 rule, which if you were in the top 60 money winners, you were exempt for the next year. If not, you had to qualify Mondays. It’s changed to an all exempt Tour for the top 125. That’s the big difference right there from a competitive standpoint.
The other difference is course conditioning is so much better today, more consistent. We’re playing the same speed greens, we’re playing the same types of bunkers, so we go week in and week out, we play very similar golf courses, whether it’s good or bad, you want some variety.
We’re playing for an enormous amount of money, which is a lot difference than when I started, which was thanks to Arnold Palmer at that time, it was a lot different before Arnold Palmer. You saw the Arnold Palmer effect and the Tiger Woods effect.
And the other thing that’s different is we’re given so much more now than we ever were given before. We had to fend for ourselves when we first came on the Tour. Now they spoil us, the Tour and sponsors spoil us. It’s appreciated by this person. Dick’s and the way this tournament spoils us. Before, there were things that you never had before. You had to either bring your practice balls and hit your own practice balls or pay for practice balls. Now they’re free practice balls. Food, you went in the clubhouse and if you’re lucky the tournament would give you half off on your chits, but you would eat the food at the clubhouse and there would be no private place to go to eat. You wouldn’t have a private dining room for the players, you had to eat with everybody else, and that’s okay.
Transportation, cars, big difference. This week a car is provided for our use for the week. Before you had to rent your own car or take your own car out, which a lot of guys did. Airplane travel is ‑‑ well, let’s put it this way: Airplane travel was easier back then than it is now because you could go to the airport a half hour in advance and walk on the plane, and now it’s an hour and a half advance to walk on the plane. There’s more time spent in airports now thanks to Osama bin Laden, Those are some of the changes that have happened and we’ve got it really good, let’s put it that way, we’ve got it really good.”
Of course you can’t talk to Tom Watson and not mention the 2009 Open. He was asked how his life changed after that miraculous near miss.
“Well, I’m more recognizable, that’s for sure, and the topic of conversation almost exclusively is about the 2009 British Open tournament. This all for a guy who finished second, that’s the way I look at it. I’m humbled by the response, still am. I was trying to win a golf tournament just like I did all my life. I came close to beating the kids, I scared a few of them, and it was an opportunity lost. The ball was in the air at 18 and I had a flashback to ’77 to Turnberry at the 18th hole and the ball was in the air there, that was perfect”
I asked him about his meeting with Open Champion Stewart Cink (alias The Man Who Killed Santa Claus) later that night after Cink had claimed the win.
“Yeah, my wife and I, after the tournament was over, I was disappointed but we had eaten at a little restaurant called Wylde’s which was at a little town near Turnberry and we ate there. It was pretty emotional experience going there with people and it ended up there was some joy at the end and we get back to the hotel and we’re walking up the stairs and there’s Stewart and his family and he’s clutching the Open trophy right there, just walking around, and I said to him, I said, ‘Pretty good feeling, isn’t it’ and he just smiled. Didn’t have to say anything.”
Watson is a class act and has grown into today’s “Playing Elder Statesman.” And as long as he still feels the thrill of the competition he’ll continue to play. And that’s good news for us.