Alex Massie

The New “Old Tom”

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Tom Watson strides up the 9th hole during round three of the 138th Open Championship. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images.

This needs to be written now, not later. Because I’m still a sceptic. I’d love to believe that Tom Watson, 60 in two months time and sporting a new hip, can really win the Open Championship this afternoon. But sometimes faith and hope aren’t enough. The laws of probability and the remorseless weight of years of accumulated evidence scoff at the notion that Old Tom can pull it off. But, by god, wouldn’t it be splendid if he can?

Commonsense dictates he can’t. Commonsense demands that Watson’s putter, the cause of so much heartbreak over the years, cannot continue to work so smoothly. Commonsense insists that there are only so many 40, 50 and 60 foot putts a man can make in four rounds of golf. Commonsense tells you that Watson’s frailties inside six feet will reappear with an agonising vengeance this afternoon.

Then again, commonsense also dictates that a 59 year old cannot hold the 54 hole lead at golf’s greatest championship. So what does commonsense know? Really, though, it’s hard to fathom any of this. It defies logic and helps explain why sport moves so many people so much.

Watson has been here before. And not just in 1977 either. The Duel in the Sun against and with Jack Nicklaus is rightly lauded as one of golf’s great moments. Less frequently recalled is how Watson held the 36 hole lead at Turnberry in 1994 and entered the final round tied for third. Back then, a full 11 years after his last victory in a major, he was the crowd’s sentimental favourite.

Alas, it wasn’t to be as a fourth round 74 saw Watson finish 11th in a tournament that would be won by Nick Price. Even then and even on the final day a Watson victory always seemed unlikely. But, crikey, this year’s improbability knocks that unlikelihood into a cocked hat. And then some.

Price was runner-up in the 1982 Open, the first I can recall clearly. The first two rounds were dominated by a knickerbockered American named Bobby Clampett, before his collapse and Price’s own fine iron play left the Zimbabwean with the 54 hole lead. But Price would shoot 73 in the final round and the Claret Jug would be taken home to Kansas, for the fourth time, by a chap named Tom Watson.

The next year Watson won his fifth Open - and his first in England  - when he won at Birkdale. And in 1984 he seemed set to equal Harry Vardon’s record of six championships before Seve Ballesteros pushed him into second at St Andrews.

Watson’s record of five wins and a second in ten years established him as the greatest links golfer since Peter Thomson. He was the first golfer I really rooted for (the second was Sandy Lyle) and so, in some ways, this week has been a return to childhood memories for me, just as it must have been for so many others who were only kids when Watson was in his pomp.

I doubt, however, that there’s been a more popular American golfer in Scotland since Bobby Jones himself. Strange to think that a boy from landlocked Kansas would develop such a mastery of seaside golf and such an affinity with Scottish crowds.

But Watson has always been notable for his modesty and his sense of history in a game that, admittedly, sometimes over-prizes the value of that history. He has always seemed to understand that golf is not a game of fairness and that the test is how you react to the capriciousness of fortune. Not for Watson the easy whingeing that is the escape hatch favoured by golfers of lesser fortitude.

That was brought home to me at the Carnoustie Open of 1999. I was part of Scotland on Sunday’s team covering the championship and had the great fortune to spend a little  - very little - time with Watson. At a moment when others golfers were raging at the “unfair” set-up of the course (not altogether without reason), Watson calmly pointed out that whatever one thought of it, the course was the same for everyone and that, this being the Open, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect a demanding test on the toughest course on the rota. There was a sense of perspective - not to mention a generosity in indulging a kid reporters ignorant questions - that has stayed with one ever since.

So let’s hope the old boy can bring it home later today. It’s about time Harry Vardon had some company. He’s been on his own with six for too long. The odds must still be against the fairytale having a fairytale conclusion but if it does - and all Scotland and, outside the Westwood and Fisher families, all England too, will be hoping it does - then this will be both one of the greatest stories in the history of the game and a victory that couldn’t be more deserved or go to a better, more decent golfer.

Scotland has been good to Tom Watson, but he’s been good to us too. More than good, in fact. So here’s hoping the putter keeps working for 18 more holes. It’s tough on other deserving cases, such as Westwood, but it will be a terrible letdown if the Claret Jug doesn’t go back to Kansas one more time.

Yes, there's been a lot of sports blogging here lately. But the Ashes, the Open and the Tour de France are a helluva lot more interesting and compelling than anything that's happening in British or American politics right now.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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