Tom Watson has had a lot of memorable moments in his career as a professional golfer, and at age 65 he is ready to add another.
Watson is set to compete in his 38th — and likely final — British Open starting Thursday at the famed Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland.
The Royal & Ancient governing body extended an exemption to Watson, allowing him to play one more time in golf’s oldest championship.
Watson has won the British Open five times. The triumphs all came on links courses — Carnoustie, Turnberry, Muirfield, Royal Troon and Royal Birkdale — but he has never won at St. Andrews, the home of golf.
“It’s a culmination of a long journey,” Watson said of his British Open career. “I love links golf. That wasn’t the case at first, but I grew to love it.
“There is a lot of sadness, but the memories will help fill that void. I have been fortunate to have a lot of good memories there.”
Watson said he has always loved playing in Scotland because of the passion people there have for the game as well as its history. It is believed that the game originated at St. Andrews in the early 1400s.
“It’s the environment,” Watson said. “The people there embrace the game more than in any other country.
“And St. Andrews is the pinnacle of Open sites. No other venue has that history.”
St. Andrews is honoring Watson ths week with a special exhibit highlighting his success in the British Open.
“Tom Watson is one of the finest golfers of the modern era and a firm favorite with British golf fans,” said Graeme Simmers, chairman of the British Golf Museum. “It is fitting that the focal point of our newly expanded British Golf Museum is a special exhibition dedicated to celebrating the career of a special Open Champion.”
While Watson has had a lot of great memories in the British Open, he said the most memorable was his victory in 1977 at Turnberry. That tournament became known as “Duel in the Sun” because it was played in unusually warm conditions.
It became a two-man battle as Watson and Jack Nicklaus each shot 68, 70 and 65 in the first three rounds.
In the final round, a birdie at the par-5 17th put Watson alone in first place for the first time that day, and at No. 18 he hit a 7-iron within about 2 feet of the hole.
Nicklaus kept the pressure on Watson by making a 35-foot birdie putt, and Watson said the roar was deafening as he lined up his putt for the win.
“I just stayed with my routine,” Watson said. “You practice that. I had already had some success to rely upon.”
As the roar continued, Watson decided to continue through his normal putting process.
“Nicklaus then raised both arms and within 3 seconds there was dead silence,” Watson said. “It was amazing. The crowd knew how the game was supposed to be played, in silence.”
Watson made his putt for the championship, and then was told by Nicklaus: “I gave you my best shot and it wasn’t good enough.”
Watson said those words stayed with him throughout his career.
“At that moment,” Watson said, “I knew I could play with the best player in the game, and that was Jack Nicklaus.”
Watson went on to win eight major championships on the PGA Tour and six on the Champions Tour.
He has confidence because he almost added another major last month in the U.S. Senior Open. He took the lead with a first-round 66 and finished in a tie for seventh place.
“I drove the ball well and my putting was very good at the Senior Open, but it is crucial to hit your irons close,” Watson said. “That is especially true at St. Andrews because of the size of the greens.”
Watson said it is possible on some holes to hit a good shot and be 60 feet away from the hole.
“You’re going to have a lot of long putts,” Watson said. “It’s imperative that week to have really good speed with your putts.”
Watson said that if he can get his iron game in good shape and continue to do well with the driver and putter, he believes that he can be competitive and make the cut.
While most expect this to be Watson’s last British Open, there is at least a small chance that it won’t be. The top 10 finishers automatically qualify for the 2016 British Open at Royal Troon.
“There is always that element of surprise,” Watson said. “If I get it going and play really well, you just never know.”
British Open triumphs
Tom Watson has won the British Open five times in his illustrious career.
▪ 1975: Watson and Jack Newton tied at 279, and Watson won in an 18-hole playoff by 1 stroke at Carnoustie in Scotland.
▪ 1977: Watson shot 268, good for a 1-stroke victory over Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in Scotland.
▪ 1980: Watson had little to worry about late, taking a 4-shot victory over Lee Trevino with a 271 total at Muirfield in Scotland.
▪ 1982: Watson shot 284 and held off Nick Price and Peter Oosterhuis by 1 stroke at Royal Troon in Scotland.
▪ 1983: Watson won his only British Open title in England, shooting 275 for a 1-shot win over Andy Bean and Hale Irwin at Royal Birkdale.