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The long, shrill dial tone clicked off as the man on the other end of the line lifted the receiver.
An unmistakable voice. Low, warm, familiar.
In another life, he might have made an excellent continuity announcer or a damn fine commentator.
But he didn’t need to. You know what they say. Those who can play golf, do. Those who cannot, commentate.
Man, could Tom Watson play golf.
Eight majors, thirty-nine PGA Tour titles and four years at the top of the McCormack’s World Golf Ranking are evidence of that, so too his eight major near-misses, six senior major victories and four Ryder Cup appearances.
Over the hour and a half that followed, we covered much ground: his affection for Scotland; his awful first experience of links golf; the ‘Duel in the Sun’ at Turnberry in 1977; his heartbreak at the same Ayrshire resort 32 years later in his bid to become the oldest major champion of all time. We even talked about his favourite book, the Ayn Rand masterpiece ‘Atlas Shrugged’.
Never have ninety minutes felt more like one. It was only supposed to be thirty but Tom wanted to talk – a rare commodity in an impatient world that is too quick to ask “what’s in it for me?”
At the risk of sounding sycophantic, it was a privilege to listen as he described, in lucid detail, some of the most memorable moments from his illustrious career. How much of a privilege? Put it this way: I still have the tape.
People routinely use one word above all others to describe Watson: ‘gentleman’. I’ll vouch for that. Many players who have accomplished far less – in a major sense, only five have actually achieved more – are nowhere near as generous or gregarious.
That’s not to say he’s perfect. He has battled demons, most notably giving up alcohol because, in his own words, “I didn’t like myself when I drank. I did stupid things.” His failed marriage to first wife, Linda, also saw him largely estranged from two of his children.
“When you have the drive I had then you become selfish,” he told The Guardian in 2009. “You spend a lot more time doing your profession and that circle gets too big in comparison to the circle containing the other things in your life that you have to take care of: your family and so on.”
A saint, he’s not. But he’s honest – an increasingly rare quality in the highfalutin world of the rich and famous.
Today, he will play what is likely to be his final competitive round of golf in the UK. Father Time has caught up with him, pilfering much of what made him so formidable a champion. Retirement beckons.
Tributes will inevitably be written through misty eyes and with a gnawing sadness that one of the game’s all-time greats has done his thing on these shores for the last time.
Prudent, then, to consider the words of the man himself back in July 2009, sitting on the stage in the media centre as a dejected press corps trudged in. At 59, Watson had come within a shot of becoming the oldest major champion of all time. Alas, there’s a good reason fairytales are mostly found in the fiction aisle. Stewart Cink got the better of him in a play-off. Watson finished second, and it sucked. For him, for his family, for millions of golf fans around the world and, yes, for the media. It was the greatest story never told. The mood in the tent was tangibly despondent.
Until, that is, Watson lightened it with just six words.
“This ain’t a funeral, you know.”
He was right then and the same sentiment is right today. His final competitive round on British soil should be a time for celebration, not maudlin sentiment.
Of the most ‘Scottish’ American ever to wield a club.
Of the man from Kansas who won the Open at the first time of asking.
Of his wins at Turnberry, Muirfield, Carnoustie, Royal Troon, Royal Aberdeen and Royal Birkdale.
Of his metronomic swing.
Of his magnanimity with his fans and the media.
Of Tom Watson: the man, the golfer, the legend.
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