by Peter Kravitz
This year, for its 150th anniversary, The Open Championship golf tournament (known in the U.S. as “The British Open”) will again be played at the Old Course in St. Andrew’s, Scotland, July 14–17.
Seven years ago, Tom Watson, then sixty-five, played his final Open round at St. Andrew’s, and I was there. Watson is the greatest Open golfer of the past one hundred years, and while he never won an Open at St. Andrews, he captured five on other courses—more than Tiger’s three Opens, Bobby Jones’s three, Hogan’s one, Jack’s three, and Arnie’s two—more than any of America’s greats. Only England’s Harry Vardon won more—six from 1896 to 1914.
Then there was Watson’s stunning near-win at The Open in Turnberry as a fifty-nine-year-old, when, despite two perfect shots at the 72nd and final hole, he bogeyed, dropping him into a playoff, which he lost. He was then thirteen years older than “Old” Tom Morris, who set The Open mark for the oldest winner in 1867 at age forty-six. Watson was a bad bounce from shattering that record, which is now 155 years old. (Phil Mickelson, who at fifty won the 2021 PGA, is the oldest player to win a major—which includes The Open, the U.S. PGA Championship, the U.S. Open, and the Masters.)
In the hope of witnessing Watson’s final-ever Open round, I had contacted a friend, Mat Scanlan, an English police officer, who had twice golfed with me near my home in New York. “Any interest in going to The Open?” I e-mailed him.
Mat quickly worked up an itinerary for us to play golf in England and Scotland and scored two tickets to the Friday round of The Open—because that would probably be Watson’s goodbye. I had been to eight majors at that time, strictly outside the ropes, as a fan. Mat had never attended a golf tournament.
The long-awaited day arrived, and Mat and I drove through hard rain from Edinburgh to St. Andrews, where the Royal and Ancient Golf Club was founded in 1754. We arrived at 8 a.m. for the Friday second round. Huge puddles saturated the Old Course. Workers swept water into the Swilcan burn (Scottish for “creek”). Scores of fans were walking inside the ropes down the 17th fairway. We followed them towards the Swilcan Bridge when a marshal ordered us off the course. Another minute and I would have been on that bridge, whose age “is a matter of vigorous debate among the locals, with estimates ranging from less than 300 years to over 1,000,” according to George Peper in his terrific tome Two Years in St. Andrews. The bridge spans the burn, which separates the first and 18th fairways, and it is customary for golf champions to stop at the top of the small, stone bridge’s curve and wave to their fans.
The rain let up. The Old Course absorbed most of the puddles quickly, and we began a wonderfully long day at St. Andrews, as it hosted The Open for the twenty-ninth time. Watson was supposed to tee off in Game No. 38 at 1:34 p.m. with Ernie Els and Brandt Snedeker. He finally teed off at nearly 5 p.m. due to delays caused by the deluge. By then, a good chunk of the massive crowd had abandoned the course.
Mat and I climbed high into a grandstand overlooking the 15th green, revealing a spectacular view of the beach, the town and two of St. Andrew’s additional courses, including the New Course, a mere 122 years old then, which wraps around the Old Course. Amidst that splendor we would watch Watson’s last-ever round at The Open, as his first round of 76 had left him with little chance of making the cut. In Watson’s Open debut in 1975, he won in a playoff at Carnoustie. That year was also the debut of Scottish announcer Ivor Robson, whose high-pitched introductions subsequently became an Open staple. This would be Robson’s last Open as well.
As we waited, we listened to the BBC’s tournament coverage. The commentators discussed Sir Nick Faldo, a three-time Open champ who was also competing in his last Open. Faldo is the only Englishman to have won The Open in the past fifty-one years. As Faldo crossed the Swilcan Bridge, one of the commentators questioned Faldo’s sense of fashion: “Is that the jumper he wore when he won here? It doesn’t seem to fit very well.” Faldo is kinder to players in his role as the lead CBS golf analyst in the U.S., with his play-by-play partner Jim Nance.
As Watson approached the 11th tee, fans in the still-crowded grandstand roared their appreciation. It would be, perhaps, his loudest applause of the day. Watson struck a good tee shot on the challenging 11th, one of only two par threes on the course. He parred this hole on both rounds.
By 8 p.m. I was beyond exhausted. We’d walked twelve miles and been on our feet most of the day. My back and legs ached. Due to that fatigue and soreness—and because we faced a two-hour drive to Glasgow, where we had hotel rooms—I was considering giving up the quest to see Watson finish. Mat, a distance runner who wasn’t physically annihilated like me, suggested we go to the grandstand at the Road Hole (No. 17) to wait for Watson and see him finish.
After everything I’d been through to get here, how could I have even contemplated bailing out? Then it began raining again, the first time since early in the day. The headwinds of the gale made for difficult walking and especially difficult ball striking. Watson now faced a number of long par 4s, including the 495-yard 17th, before he could stand on the bridge. And that was even if he could finish, as dark clouds consumed the evening light. The glow from the scoreboards helped illuminate the Old Course, though, so the players continued on.
Watson bogeyed the short 12th, and then the 14th, 15th, and 16th. For the first time in his Open history, he might fail to break 80. By this time, the groups behind Watson’s had quit for the day because of the weather, leaving Watson’s group the only ones still playing.
It was nearly 10 p.m. when the skies suddenly brightened, spilling enough light for Game 38 to finish. Mat stayed in the grandstand, while I scampered down to a spot about fifty feet from the bridge. There were only about 200 fans along the 18th fairway and in the grandstand. A small crowd of officials, players, and Watson’s family and friends assembled in front of the R & A clubhouse behind the 18th green. A trickle of fans stumbled out of the taverns to watch.
Watson hit his drive on No. 18 and walked toward the burn. First Watson, Els, Snedecker and caddies were on the bridge for a group photo. Then it was just Watson and his caddie, his thirty-two–year-old son Michael. Lastly, it was Watson alone. As he doffed his cap and pointed his turquoise glove towards the heavens, the small, adoring contingent of dedicated fans cheered for him. Then he was gone, jogging off the bridge toward the 18th green, where he three putted, finishing at precisely 9:54 p.m., his round clocking just over five hours. He posted an 80 for the day.
“There’s no reason to be sad,” said Watson at his last-ever post-Open press conference. “I’ve played a game for a living, and I’ve played it well.”
Photo credity by Courtney Cook (Indiana US) @courtneycookcreative
Peter Kravitz is the author of So You Wanna Be a Teacher, a former Philadelphia reporter and retired New York public high school Journalism teacher. He's a regular contributor to Silver Sage Magazine.