Since it’s the weekend, let’s take a quick break and focus on what’s going across the Atlantic, where Tom Watson is not playing like a kid, but rather, as a man with experience.
Just for fun, I thought you might like to go back to a column I wrote a year ago before the 2008 British Open after a chat with Watson at the Golf Town Invitational near Toronto. The date of the column is July 14, 2008, so some of it is out of date, but it contains some interesting observations from Watson and Bernhard Langer.
It may be difficult to believe for some, but there was golf before Tiger Woods arrived, particularly the peculiar brand that will be dished out at Royal Birkdale, where the recuperating Tiger won’t be playing this week. Woods wasn’t even born when another TW began his ascent to British Open icon.
“Links golf is a different type of golf and some people like it, some people don’t,” said Tom Watson at last month’s Golf Town Invitational at Aurora’s Magna Golf Club. “I didn’t like it at all when I first played it.”
Those sound like strange words from a guy who won five Open Championships, not to mention three Senior British Opens, the latest coming just last year, but the unpredictable nature of golf across the ocean became apparent immediately for Watson, 58.
Playing in his first British Open in 1975, Watson couldn’t get on Carnoustie the Sunday before due to qualifying, so he went to a course down the road to get a taste of what he would be facing later in the week.
His first shot on a links course was right down the middle, perhaps a little right, but seemingly safe – or so he thought. The hunt was on for a golf ball that had mysteriously vanished and Watson’s curiosity about what had happened to it intensified the search efforts.
“There’s a little pot bunker. In that pot bunker was my golf ball. It had hit a slope and had run sideways into the pot bunker. I said, ‘I don’t like this.’ That was my first shot,” said Watson, adding that it took a long time for him to get over that one.
The mental anguish over that unfair turn of events wasn’t too debilitating because Watson won his first Open Championship that year and also took an epic battle with Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry two years later.
The eight-time major champion learned to accept that it all comes down to the bounce of the ball and he says his ability to get up and down from sticky situations was the key to his success in Britain.
“You do have to run the ball on the ground a lot at links golf courses,” he said. “It really kind of takes you back to your roots when you were a kid, when you couldn’t hit the ball very far – you had to run the ball on the greens.
“I’m looking forward to going back to Birkdale this year. That’s one of my favourite courses over there,” said Watson, who naturally has a story from there, as well.
“One story about Birkdale, the 12th hole is a par three. I get up there and I’m looking at this green and it’s a narrow green in the sense that it’s got a dune coming in from the right,” said Watson.
“I looked at this thing and it looked like it was about 360 or 380 (yards),” said Watson, who asked his caddie for a yardage to a bunker, figuring it was about 260 or 280 yards. He was told it was about 185 to the front of the green.
“I said, ‘What are you talking about? No way.’ What they’d done, they had different sized (flagstick). Since that was one of the most exposed greens, they had about a three-foot (flagstick),” said Watson. “I thought it was a par four and it was a par three.”
Watson isn’t the only player who had to acquire a taste for links golf. Even a European such as German Bernhard Langer, a two-time Masters champion, struggled at first.
“My first links experience was at St. Andrews,” recalled Langer. “I was 19 years old playing the British Open and I teed off at St. Andrews.
“After six holes, I had the same experience. I decided links was not golf, it was pure luck. It has nothing to do with skill and I absolutely hated that, so I walked away from there saying I don’t think I’ll ever play links golf again,” he said.
“Over the years, I’ve learned that there’s a lot more to it and now, I actually love links courses and I love St. Andrews. It’s just a matter of figuring it out,” said Langer.
“I was just too young and too immature and didn’t like the bad bounces or standing on a tee and all you see is a few bushes. It’s a blind tee shot and you have no idea where you’re going, so you need a professional caddie and you need a couple of rounds to have a clue where you’re going,” he added.
British Open history has shown, and players have already attested, that the courses across the pond can be just as entertaining as the guys who will be the pawns at Royal Birkdale this week.