As a group of amateur golfers assemble on the first tee of the Old Course at St Andrews in Scotland, they are watched pensively by a man sat in the clubhouse pavilion.
Laughing and joking, the group’s eagerness to play a legendary course steeped in Open Championship history is not lost on their audience. He is Tom Watson, and few people and places are more synonymous with the Open than the 72-year-old and St Andrews.
One of golf’s most iconic names, Watson is a five-time winner of the major, while the Old Course at St Andrews has hosted the Open more times than any other venue and will stage the 150th edition of the tournament later this month.
Yet incredibly – and not for the want of trying – Watson never lifted the Claret Jug at the historic links course.
With eight major triumphs and 39 PGA Tour wins, the American is regarded as one of the game’s greatest-ever players. His five Open successes between 1975 and 1983 leave him second only to Harry Vardon (six) in all-time wins at the event, consolidating his reputation as an outstanding links golfer.
Had it not been for two agonizing runner-up finishes, Watson would have eclipsed Vardon’s haul, yet even during the first of those near misses in 1984 at St Andrews, he insists that the record was not on his mind.
“I didn’t think about that,” Watson told CNN Sport. “My job is to play every shot until I finish it up on here in 18 and hope that’s going to be the lowest score of the week.”
“Now I had to be a hero”
One hole from the close in 1984, Watson’s job was almost finished as he arrived at the notorious 17th road hole tied for the lead with Seve Ballesteros.
His opening drive skewed to the right, close to being out of bounds, and settled on a sloped mound. Thirty-eight years on as he retraces his steps on the course, Watson can still pick out the hump that led him to attempt an all-or-nothing second shot.
“Now I had to be a hero. I was going to take a risk and hit that perfect shot to win the Open Championship,” he recalled. “The rest is history, but the lie dictated the shot that I tried to play there. I decided to take the aggressive play.”
History indeed, as – recorded in one of golf’s great photos – Watson subsequently found himself forced to play the most awkward of lies mere inches from the wall and onlooking fans. Despite having minimal room for back swing, Watson bounced an impressive effort across the road and onto the green.
Yet as he lined up an improbable long-range putt, his Spanish counterpart, a hole ahead, was starring in a soon-to-be iconic photoshoot of his own.
“I heard the roar of the crowd,” Watson remembered, as Ballesteros marked his stunning, curling birdie putt at the 18th with his legendary fist pump celebration.
Watson bogeyed before parring at the last to seal a fourth major win for Ballesteros, who would triumph once more at the Open in 1988.
“I knew I had a really good chance of winning”
Watson would never again come so close at St Andrews – a 31st place finish in 1995 his best ensuing result – but came close to an unbelievable Open win elsewhere in 2009.
At 59 years old, he stunned the world at Turnberry, Scotland, by shooting 65, 70, and 71 to lead by a stroke at four-under heading into championship Sunday. It put him within 18 holes of shattering the record for oldest major winner, set by 48-year-old Julius Boros at the 1968 PGA Championship (and surpassed by a 50-year-old Phil Mickelson in 2021).
Thirteen years later, Watson said he “didn’t care” about the feat, but he did feel the pressure of playing at the event.
“I felt nervous because I knew I had a really good chance of winning,” he admitted.
Bouncing back superbly from two bogeys on the opening three holes, Watson birdied the penultimate hole to arrive at the par-four 18th needing to make par to edge compatriot Stewart Cink and secure the win.
After an ideal tee drive had put him in the center of the fairway, Watson believes to this day he hit the “perfect” approach. Yet just as in 1984, the elements were not on his side, as the ball landed comfortably on the green only to speed past the flag and settle in the long grass downhill.
“There was a lot of wind at my back and there was even more of a gust of wind when I hit, and I think a lot of that ball going over the green was just that extra gust,” he said.
Watson chip-putted onto the green, but his failure to convert the subsequent 10-foot putt forced a four-hole playoff. Cink romped home to victory with a pair of pars and birdies, with Watson finishing four over par.
“This ain’t a funeral, you know?” Watson quipped at the opening of his press conference, although adding that the loss had “torn” at his gut. Yet ultimately the agonizing miss hasn’t diminished his love for the game.
“I’m a golfer, I play a game for a living. How easy a life is that?” he said.
“I wanted to be the absolute best golfer I could possibly be for myself. If that was good enough to beat everybody else, so be it.”
Watching the camaraderie of the group of enthusiasts on the first hole only consolidates Watson’s reflections, but it also stirs another feeling – missing the thrill of competing.
“I enjoy being around the people that I’ve met over the years who are at tournament sites,” he said. “But when the competition’s going on, I’d rather be on the golf course than hanging out under the tree at Augusta or on the patio here.
“I want be out there – you never lose that.”