It is 10 years since Tom Watson came within one hard, fateful bounce of authoring the sports story to end them all and winning the Open on the cusp of his 60th birthday.
Now he approaches his 70th with his capacity to astonish undiminished.
The man from Kansas and the greatest links golfer of all time goes into the Senior Open at Royal Lytham, beginning today, on the back of shooting his age or lower in no fewer than three of the four rounds at the recent Senior US Open.
Tom Watson says ‘great genes and a little smoke and mirrors’ fuel his remarkable longevity
He turns 70 in September but remains hungry for Senior Open success at Royal Lythm
Watson says he has tweaked his golf swing and is excited at the results it may bring
‘Great genes and a little smoke and mirrors,’ was his assessment of his remarkable longevity, as he pulled up a chair in the pavilion at Portrush of one of his sponsors, Rolex, and proceeded to shoot the breeze as adeptly as he shoots his age.
About a third of the 40-minute conversation was taken up describing his new passion of cutting (basically equestrian riding, western-style), where he has improved from ‘about a 40 handicap to around a 12’ in three years.
We start with a short reminisce about those four days at Turnberry in 2009, where he shook the sporting world. Leading by a stroke on the 18th tee, on the course where he beat Jack Nicklaus in arguably the greatest of all Opens in 1977, Watson played two marvellous shots — but his approach kept rolling off the back of the green.
In 2009, Watson was within one putt of winning The Open at 59, only for Stewart Cink to win
Watson insists he has no regrets over the 2009 Open and says Cink deserved his success
The groan in the media centre was a fearful prelude to what happened next, as he took three more to complete the hole and lost the subsequent play-off to Stewart Cink.
‘I’ve spent my week being told that 10 years ago I stole the Open from Tom Watson,’ the genial Cink wryly remarked at Portrush. Watson smiles when I tell him.
‘I can understand that,’ he says. ‘But the fact is, he didn’t steal it. I’ve never forgotten an early conversation I had with Jack Nicklaus. He said you don’t get lucky to win the Open. You might get lucky on a shot, or even a hole. But the tournament is over 72 holes, not one, and it’s not luck when it’s won by the man who completes all 72 with the lowest score.’
Watson adds: ‘There are benchmark years that people always talk about and unfortunately, I guess, that’s one of those for me. People have asked me about it a lot. But do I have any regrets? I honestly don’t. I never think about it unless someone mentions it.’
He has won the Open five times and the senior version on three occasions but never in either instance at Lytham — not even close. ‘It took me a while to get to know it and even when I did, I never played it particularly well,’ he reflects. ‘But it’s a strong golf course. I’m sitting here now, and I can picture it all, and my strategy. My approach will be the same as it was when I was in my prime. Can I still win? It’s an outside possibility these days.
‘I’ve lost a bit of length. My yardstick was always to fly the ball 250 yards through the air but I’m lying to myself in thinking I can still get it out that far. Maybe if it’s downhill or downwind.
‘I’ve made an adjustment to my swing and I’m excited to see how it pans out. We never stop making tweaks as golfers, do we?’
For perhaps the first time since he was a teenager, though, golf has competition. ‘Now you’re getting to a subject where we don’t have enough time,’ he says, showing me a video clip on his phone of the rudiments of cutting.
‘It is my new passion, and so far, I’ve improved enough to win $19,000 in competition. My goal is to beat Hal Sutton, who won $42,000 but he had a massive head-start since his dad was in the cutting business.
‘Basically, it involves riding a horse into a herd of cattle, and the object is to separate a specific cow from the herd. But you can’t use the reins, you have to guide and control the horse with your feet, and that’s the skill.
Watson poses with his wife after winning the 1975 Open at Carnoustie ahead of Jack Newton
‘There might even be more variables to it than golf, given you don’t know what the cow will do nor the horse, even though it is trained. But there are some similarities. Whether riding into the arena or standing on the first tee, I still get nervous.’
Any grand plans for his 70th, on September 4? ‘I have no idea what I’m going to do,’ he says. ‘It’s just a number, isn’t it?’
Suddenly, his face lights up. ‘I tell you what, though,’ he adds. ‘It’s going to be easier to shoot my age.’