Contained within a fascinating ensemble of stories, memories and reflections, there was a brief moment of tangible poignancy during Tom Watson’s press conference ahead of his final Open Championship appearance this week.
“My only regret is that it’s the end.”
So enthralling was the 65-year-old’s meeting with the media that the hardy ranks assembled before him even broke into uncharacteristic, spontaneous applause at its end.
With the exception, perhaps, of the stenographer charged with transcribing the chat, everyone in the room appeared to appreciate what they’d just been privy to. It's what I call the three ‘H’s: humour, humility and honesty. Usually, you’ll settle for just one in a press conference. Two is a rare treat. Three? Almost unheard of but exceptional when it happens.
Now, before we submit ourselves completely to sentiment, let's face facts: Tom Watson is no saint. He’s as flawed as the rest of us. But, in the context of the Open Championship, he’s almost without peer.
Five times a winner of the Claret Jug, the first of those triumphs coming on his championship debut in 1975, he is bettered only in prolificacy by Harry Vardon, a six-time winner of golf’s oldest professional event. But for a cruel bounce on the 18th green at Turnberry in 2009, Watson would almost certainly have matched that haul.
And yet he hated links golf at first. Couldn’t get accustomed to the kicks and breaks, the dubious participation of dumb luck in determining a score. A round in the howling wind and rain at Royal Dornoch in the company of his good friend Sandy Tatum changed all that. Now, Watson is widely and rightly regarded as one of the most – if not the most – accomplished links golfers of all time.
This week, on Sunday if all goes to plan, he will walk across the Swilcan Bridge one final time and take his leave from a championship that, by his own admission, has largely defined his career. The will to compete remains but the tools, he says, are rusty. Age has caught him with him, reined-in his ability to hit the ball a competitive distance. It’s for that reason that next year’s Masters Tournament will also be his last appearance at Augusta National.
The Open has defined Tom Watson's career - so where is 'honorary' involvement in the championship?
And yet it is from that same Georgia institution that the R&A could learn a lesson in how to treat its great champions. Every year, Augusta hosts a par-3 tournament in which current players and former winners are invited to take part. Likewise, every year, the tournament ‘proper’ begins with ceremonial tee shots struck by three of the game’s greats and proud owners of a combined 13 Green Jackets: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.
With two Masters wins of his own, such a privilege is surely in Watson’s own future. Yet, herein lies the point: the Open has defined Watson’s career – and because of a presumed lack of sentiment on the part of its organisers, it will shut the door on him after this week. That strikes me as poor.
Clearly, hitting a ceremonial tee shot might be nicer in theory than practice. The first tee time at Augusta on the Thursday morning is typically around 8am, with the honorary trio arriving on the scene to do their bit roughly 15 minutes earlier. By comparison, the Open, to accommodate its larger field, will set its first group off this year at 6.32am. An ‘honorary’ tee ball struck by, say, Watson would need to be launched, therefore, around 6.15am. I get it: it's probably impractical.
However, what is there to stop such a shot being struck at, for example, 5pm on the Wednesday evening? It’s not as though the 100m final is run on the same day as the torch-lightning at the Olympics, after all.
Alternatively, why not make the four-hole Past Champions Challenge an annual thing, with somebody like Watson given the honour of, again, striking the first shot to officially 'open the Open', as it were?
It is the champions that have created the event’s legacy, its prestige, its lustre – and yet they are typically allowed to depart the scene with a few waves and an all-too-brief moment of acclaim, their stories left to endure in the form of an engraving on the Claret Jug. All well and good but it could be so much better.
Tom Watson is surely too significant to allow that trend to continue. No active player has won the championship more often, remember.
For his record, for his reputation – hell, for the memories he has given and shared with us all – he deserves more than a side door exit.
He deserves to become a part of the championship because he is a part of the championship.
A very, very big part. And he'll be missed.
A role for Tom Watson?
Do you agree with Michael McEwan that the R&A should find a way of involving Tom Watson in future Open Championships? How could they best do so? Leave your thoughts in our 'Comments' section below.