Four Days in July

Tom Watson, the 2009 Open Championship, and a Tournament for the Ages

Jim Huber

Thomas Dunne Books

1
 
THE DREAM FACTORY
 
It was midmorning on Monday, July 13, 2009. The wind off the Irish Sea gnawed at my ears as I huddled on the makeshift driving range. While the Ailsa Course at Turnberry was being used for the 138th Open Championship, the Kintyre Course—the resort’s second eighteen—had been turned into parking lots, the television compound, hospitality areas, and the major range.
Even with the partially filled grandstands guarding my back, the wind, a regular visitor, still managed to find its entrance and make the day far colder than its announced 52 degrees.
I had finished shooting a feature to be used during Turner Broadcasting’s coverage of the Open later in the week and decided to wander the range for a while, picking up bits of gossip, saying hello to old friends, watching new swings.
The driving range can be an awkward place for an outsider, and thus a delicate balance must be struck. It is, after all, an “office” of sorts, and while amateurs use a driving range to warm up tense muscles and somehow find a swing that will work, professionals use it the week of a tournament to groove perfection.
The mood varies dramatically from the beginning of the week straight through to Sunday afternoon. You can actually feel the concentration rise to a peak as the first round draws nigh and dwindles thereafter. Early in the week, the pros use the range as a test center, asking their caddies to stand behind them to make certain the plane of their swing is correct and their alignment proper. Some may not have played in several weeks and so it is a time for rearrangement. Gadgets, yellow stakes, props of all kinds guide their shoulders, their feet, their eyes. Occasionally, a caddie will stand behind his pro with a video camera and, after several swings, they will huddle over the small screen to check the results.
It is where dreams are put to work.
By Thursday morning as the first round dawns, they have their swings down to a science and use the range as a finishing school. On Friday, depending on how they played the first day, they rework. There can be a sense of desperation as they seek hurried answers.
Come the weekend, the players who arrive on the range early are those who only barely made the cut, and thus there tends to be a bit of acceptance, an “oh, well” kind of approach. Later in the morning, the contenders gather in full serious mode.
Early Sundays, the driving range can be nearly desolate. The also-rans use it for a quick warm-up. The tension grows as the final tee times approach and those in the hunt come to the range to prime their games. All of this rarely varies from tournament to tournament, although the senses tend to be heightened at the major championships.
I have learned over the decades how to approach the range. Just as it is the golf professional’s workplace, so in a peripheral way is it mine. I usually wait to make eye contact, first with the caddies and then with their pros, if at all. If they respond, I approach to chat. If they nod and go right back to work, I move on. It is a field of learning for me. Some days I leave with wonderful nuggets to use during telecasts; other days I wind up with an empty notebook.
I have friends who envy me the experience there.
“Ah, your swing has gotta be absolutely perfect,” they say without warrant, “spending so much time with the pros.”
I must admit it can be a lethal concoction. I can on occasion come away with a fresh new idea, something to do with the right knee or the left shoulder, the way the feet are pointed or the hands positioned. More often, however, it is a collection of ideas that wind up twisting me like a Coney Island pretzel.
On this particular Monday at Turnberry, with the big Fijian Vijay Singh parked to his right and Australia’s Robert Allenby to his left, Tom Watson was hard at work. I don’t know what made me stop and watch him practice. It certainly wasn’t a hunch, couldn’t have been a preconceived notion of what was to come in a few days. There was, instead, something about the way he went about his business that attracted me. And then, of course, there was the sense of watching history.
His work ethic throughout the decades is legendary. I had often heard the story his present caddie, Neil Oxman, tells of an afternoon outside Pittsburgh in 1978 before the PGA Championship.
“We were standing at the back of the range at Oakmont, above the bunker where Tom was practicing,” recalls Oxman, who was caddying for another golfer at the time.
“Oakmont is a very long course and you were likely to have some really long bunker shots. Tom was hitting 4-woods and 5-woods out of the bunker. We were there for about two and a half hours, and in that time, Tom never left the bunker.
“Two and a half hours! It was unbelievable how hard he worked.”
That work paid large dividends that week. The twenty-nine-year old Watson fought his way into a sudden-death playoff, only to lose the PGA to John Mahaffey, one of forty-six top-ten finishes in major championships over Watson’s career.
And despite the fact that Watson was now within weeks of turning sixty, he maintained that same dedication. No small irony that he was parked in the slot on the range next to Singh, who is known as one of the hardest workers on the Tour. Theirs would be a good duel.
My back against the wind, I watched Watson go about his business. Neil Oxman was a few yards behind him, wiping down grips and scrubbing grooves. Occasionally, he would wander to the table to the right of the range and pick up another bucket of Titleist balls.
On a professional driving range, each manufacturer provides practice balls for their men, the same brand they use on the golf course, Titleist, Bridgestone, Callaway, Srixon, Nike, TaylorMade, etc. The range workers who collect the balls during the day must then separate the brands to be used again. Each different ball, to men at this level, has its own feel, and they believe it is important to practice with what they play with.
Watson used the new Titleist Pro V1x that morning, though the balls in his own bag were a variety of Titleist designed two years before. Like his clubs and shoes and gloves and caps, he is a creature of well-worn habit. The older ball, the Pro V1, seemed to have a better feel to him. He liked the way it came off his club face. He grudgingly settled on the range for the newer model.
For a long moment on this blustery Monday, he raised his head and, like an old hunting dog, sniffed the wind. He knew this golf course well. After all, one of his five Open Championships had come here in high drama thirty-two years before and he had won a Senior British Open here just six years ago. This would be his seventh competition on this remarkable property along the western elbow of Scotland. He knew how the wind worked here, no matter whether it came off the water from the southwest, as it normally did, or reversed itself and rumbled over the hilltops from the east. Sometimes, it even changed midround, and he knew how to handle that, too.
He knew how to let it be his friend. There were men on this very driving range, Open rookies, who had never played on a course like Turnberry in their lives, never had the pleasure (or frustration) of a links experience. But Tom Watson, oh, my, it is said he is the greatest links player of all time, better than Old Tom Morris or his son Young Tom, better even than Harry Vardon, who won more Opens than anyone else in history. While some on the range were newcomers at this, Watson had played 148 competitive rounds in both the Open and the Senior British and more than three times that many practice rounds. So, as some men were about to face the intricate task for the very first time, here was a man who had played more than 450 rounds on links courses in the United Kingdom.
When Tom Watson sniffed the wind, you took notice.
Satisfied that it was gusting from the southwest, he took the 18-degree Adams Hybrid, one of two hybrid clubs in his bag these days, set it down neatly behind the Titleist, and with a crisp, efficient motion that hasn’t changed a whole lot in forty years, sent the ball whistling toward the back of the range. As it rose and rode the wind, Watson kept his pose, frozen in time, until he watched the ball land 230 yards or so away and roll out. He didn’t move until it stopped.
Then he did it again.
And again.
I watched the club nearly reach parallel on the backswing, his hands so high, his head so still, and thought, “My goodness, what a physical marvel this man still is.” As age takes its unfair hold on golfers, their swings usually become shorter, their hips locked in stern refusal. Not Tom Watson.
He was deep in concentration, readying his game, when, out of the corner of an eye, he spotted an old friend and adversary making his entrance onto the range. Nick Faldo, the Brit who included three Opens among his six career major titles, strode earnestly toward an opening. His son Matthew, who was caddying for him that week, carried a large bag with the presumptuous but altogether accurate name “Sir Nick Faldo” stitched into the black leather. Knighthood had been conferred on the controversial player by Queen Elizabeth II nearly a month ago to the day. The official investiture, however, would not come for another four months, yet he had been quick to claim the title, anyway.
A sharp gleam twinkled in Watson’s eyes and he quickly bent to his knees and bowed deeply in an I’m-not-worthy welcome.
“Oh, Sir Nick!” he exclaimed. “Sir Nick has arrived!”
It was probably what every other golfer had wished he had done but lacked either the seniority or the cojones. Faldo drew great admiration among his fellow players but little adoration, his flinty personality seeming to rub most of them very wrong.
Faldo tossed Watson a knight’s wave and, almost embarrassed, stopped for a few words and moved on. Watson turned, winked at his caddie, and went back to work, his missiles once again piercing the crisp morning air. The moment of frivolity was now long gone.
*   *   *
“Something, eh?”
I turned and realized that Mark O’Meara was standing alongside me watching Watson. How long he had been there, I hadn’t a clue. The former Open and Masters champion, now a member of the Champions Tour with Watson and the rest of the over-fifty set, shook his head.
“Guy can still play, can’t he?”
I nodded and smiled. Perhaps in his dreams.
Surely this would be yet another two rounds and out for Watson. The old guy hadn’t done better than a tie for tenth in the Open in two decades. Why, this century alone, he had missed three cuts and hadn’t even started in two other Opens.
And he was playing his first Open on a new left hip, put in place just eight months before.
O’Meara smiled as though he had been reading my thoughts. “Believe me, he can still play.”
The wind suddenly shifted and roared head-on. I nestled deeper into my jacket and left the old man to his work as I walked down the line to the man who surely would be the story of the week.
Tiger Woods had arrived.


 
Copyright © 2011 by Jim Huber