Tom Watson began what likely will be his final Open Championship on Thursday with a 4-over 76 at legendary St. Andrews’ Old Course.
It’s a week that could lead to an emotional walk and wave to history on the iconic Swilcan Bridge on No. 18 Friday, should he miss the cut. But before we look for an end to his spectacular Open Championship narrative, let’s note what Watson has already experienced this week at the Home of Golf.
On Tuesday, the 65-year-old played a practice round with Patrick Reed and fellow Kansan Robert Streb. Watson was a hoot the entire 18 holes — smiling and telling stories, such as the one about the time when he accidentally aimed at the wrong pin approaching a green at the Old Course. The man was animated, lively and certainly a wealth of sound advice for the two twenty-somethings.
Streb, who sits 1 stroke off the lead at 6-under after an opening-round 66, said Watson told him to keep the ball below the wind — something the five-time champ has done magnificently in years past.
On Thursday, with his son Michael on the bag, Watson could not quite negotiate the course’s demands.
“Too many 6s,” Watson said. “I had too many unforced errors.”
Michael agreed and took away from Thursday’s round that Watson hit “three bad swings that cost us six shots.” The young Watson referred to his father’s double bogeys, which included uncharacteristic iron shots out of bounds. But Watson had warned during his Wednesday news conference that some of the “tools” were missing in his game.
For example, Watson hit a short wedge into the first hole Thursday but made a frustrating mistake.
“I thought it was a pretty good sand wedge,” he said, “and I didn’t miss it — I just didn’t hit it hard enough and hit it in the water.”
Again, the term uncharacteristic came to mind.
After all, this is the same competitor who hit a mid-iron stiff on the 72nd hole to close out his famous “Duel in the Sun” victory over Jack Nicklaus in the 1977 Open.
Watson was able to get up and down for bogey on 1 and picked up a few birdies to get to 2-under, but then “the wheels kind of fell off,” he said.
As Thursday’s round closed, there were some nice moments, too. The crowd and grandstands on the 17th tee applauded when Watson walked up, smiling much of the way. The image of Watson with hands in pocket and son walking stride for stride up and down the back nine’s fairways was a common one Thursday.
The question now is what will be the memorable visual on Friday?
One can only guess, but there was emotion and tears streaming down Watson’s face as he threw his ball into the water on the 72nd hole of his last U.S. Open in 2010 at Pebble Beach. His last British Open moments figure to illicit something heart-felt as well.
For Kansas City residents who made the pilgrimage to watch Watson finish off his Open career, it will be special. Fans Dave Guyot, Ron Ott, Chris Rhea and Bruce Ainsworth are at St. Andrews on their annual Scotland golf trip organized by their friend, Dave Still.
On Thursday, some Watson backers were dressed head to toe in Royals attire, and others wore the caps of famous golf courses they’ve played in Scotland. None is more meaningful to them than St. Andrews.
“We’ve all played the Old Course, so the memories will be thinking of watching him play his last round there, and you can almost picture yourself there,” Rhea said. “There is some sort of similarity for us because we’ve been out here and walked over the Swilcan Bridge.”
But before Watson can get to the bridge, whether Friday or on Sunday, he has to manage some tough conditions.
“It’s not going to rain on me, but the wind is going to blow hard,” Watson said. “I’m going to have to play an extraordinary round (Friday) to make the cut. That’s the way I look at it.”
Watson said he loves watching the younger players on the tour and relishes playing with them. That much was evident on the 17th tee when, with his hands gathered behind his back, he smiled as playing partner Ernie Els unleashed a high bomb with his driver.
The younger players appreciate him back, as well they should.
“He’s a legend of our game, one of the greats here,” Harris English said when asked about the significance of Watson’s last Open. “It’s pretty sad because we all know he can still compete.”
And Watson’s son Michael certainly appreciated looping for his father on the Old Course.
“It’s phenomenal,” the young Watson said, wearing a blue Kansas City Country Club cap. “It’s a great experience, extremely special.
“Let’s just hope the wind howls and it pours tomorrow and you never know what can happen. We’re just going to have to play solid.”
Playing solid is something Watson has made a World Golf Hall of Fame career doing. Why would it be any different Friday?
The Watson family will host a big dinner party after the second round, and a good time will be had by all, whether he’s still in the tournament or not.