The last time Tom Watson returned from an injury, in 2009, he nearly authored one of the most amazing achievements in all of sports by winning the British Open at Turnberry, Scotland, at age 59. It would have made him by far the oldest Champion Golfer of the Year, as they say in the British Isles, but he left there with his stature as an all-time champion elevated to levels nearly as high as if he had triumphed. Watson, now 62, this week is competing in his 12th U.S. Senior Open, just his sixth tournament of 2012 after taking time off to recover from a pinched nerve in his neck that was causing weakness in his right hand.
If he should win – and no one ever counts out Watson after his playoff loss to Stewart Cink at Turnberry three summers ago – it wouldn’t be amazing, but it would be meaningful. A champion always hungers for more.
Watson already holds the record as the oldest player to win a Champions Tour major, having captured the Senior PGA Championship last year at Valhalla. But he has yet to win this championship, and it’s a notable omission from a handsome resume that includes the 1982 U.S. Open among eight major titles.
"This event is a very special event to me," said Watson, who has seven top-10 finishes in the championship, including runner-up in 2002, ’03 and ’06. "When I was a youngster, growing up with my dad [Ray], the U.S. Open was the tournament for him. If you won the U.S. Open, you were Player of the Year in my dad's book. And his hero, Sam Snead never won the U.S. Open. He always made mention of that fact. Snead was a great player, but he never won the U.S. Open.
"When you're play-acting as a kid, [you’d think] ‘This putt is to win the U.S. Open.’ Fortunately, I did. It was kind of a dream that came true," Watson added. "The conditions are always the toughest at the U.S. Open or the U.S. Amateur. If you win, you've accomplished something extraordinary, and that's the way I've always looked at the USGA championships."
That’s how he sees this week’s venue, the Old Course at Indianwood Golf & Country Club with its narrow fairways, sloping greens and ankle-turning rough. Watson begins his championship at 8:40 a.m. Thursday with Fred Couples and amateur qualifier Doug Snoap.
"We don't play courses like this," said the Kansas native. "This is the only course we play all year that the rough is this penal. That's the way it should be. That's what you expect in the USGA championship. You'd better drive the ball straight, you better do everything well."
Watson isn’t sure he’s ready for such an exam. He’s driving it well, but his iron play has been, in his words, poor. But he’s excited about the pursuit.
"I’m really ready to play. I'm really ready to play in the worst way," he said.
But there are doubts, even at 62, even with having accomplished much more than anyone else in the 156-player field.
"Sometimes your body can't go. Right now, at times, I'm wondering if my poor iron play isn't the result of either a lack of conditioning or an injury or just a bad swing," he said. "That throws some doubt in your mind. Any time you have any doubt in your mind, this game can eat you up. It can turn you upside down.
We play this game on a thin edge a lot of times, where it's between being confident and not being confident. And whenever you let that doubt in there, it takes you below that edge, and then that concern causes some bad swings. You need that edge. Sometimes you're playing well enough that you're way over the top of the edge. But when you go through those bad spells, you're under that edge. That's when you have to rely on parts of your game."
Watson might be a bit rusty, but his peers aren’t prepared to dismiss his chances.
"I think we ought to ask him for proof of age or something," said Olin Browne, the defending champion. "He's unbelievable, isn't he? And the guy shows up. You know what? He asks no quarter, he gives no quarter. He goes about his business. He's a consummate professional. He gets after it, and he accepts whatever happens on the golf course. A lot of us, we get on a roll, and it's all good, and we have a couple of bad breaks and hang our heads or whatever. The guy never, ever quits going forward. That's an admirable characteristic."
Said Watson about the struggles that inevitably come with the confounding game of golf: "That's the way that golf … the way I look at life and golf, that's the way it is. It's not going to be all good. It's not going to be all bad. You think it's going to be one way or the other, then you're wrong."
Watson’s fortunes at Turnberry are a microcosm of his outlook. He prevailed over Jack Nicklaus in a head-to-head battle called, The Duel in the Sun, to claim the 1977 British Open and returned there in ’03 to win the Senior British Open. But then came the crushing setback in ’09 when he led by one stroke through 71 holes, but failed to save par on Turnberry’s home hole. Exhausted and crestfallen, he had little chance against Cink in the four-hole playoff.
"I had one really heartbreaking experience there, but I've had a couple of really exciting and pleasurable experiences there as well," he said, betraying neither a smile nor a grimace.
"His outlook is something that can be an inspiration to the rest of us. He’s been an inspiration to me for forever, said Tom Pernice, 52, who, like Watson, hails from Kansas City. "He’s 10 years older than I am, but I remember when he got out on tour and he was tearing down the barriers. He carries himself with ultimate class, and not only has he been a great player, but he continues to be a great player. It would surprise no one if he won this week."
And make no mistake, winning is the goal. It’s his focus. Earlier this year Watson was honored at Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament, which annually celebrates the careers of golfing greats and other personalities in the game. Watson had asked that the Captains Club, which selects the Memorial honorees, delay consideration of his credentials until after he was done compiling them. They held off until after last year’s Senior PGA victory.
Watson admits that his hero growing up was Arnold Palmer. But he revered Nicklaus and ultimately proved to be the most strident challenger to the Golden Bear’s dominance, eventually supplanting him as the best in the game. Watson and Nicklaus have since grown close. And they think alike, too, when it comes to the task of competitive golf. Neither man is inclined to look back on his record.
"I'd forgotten most of that stuff," Watson said when someone mentioned his 39 PGA Tour wins and 14 more on the Champions Tour. "When you bring it up, I talk about it, but I don't sit back and think about things."
Indeed, there will be time for reminiscing, for taking satisfaction from an enviable inventory of accomplishments. That time hasn’t yet arrived for Tom Watson. He has another USGA championship to win, to be golfer of the year among his peers one more time, just as his late father figured.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.