that Tom Watson hit from Muirfield's 17th fairway last Saturday evening won't
make his list of career shots; it came up 15 yards short of the green. But the
sun was at his back, throwing golden rays from its perch above the Firth of
Forth, and the sky ahead roiled with dark clouds from a furious squall that had
passed over the course. Watson held his follow-through and watched the flight
of his shot with absorption, as he always does. He then lowered the club and
turned to his caddie, Neil Oxman, saying, "Didn't my ball look beautiful
against that dark sky?" ¶ It was a purely aesthetic judgment. Watson, more
than any other golf star of his time, has the gift of detachment, an almost
out-of-body awareness of the landscape, the sky, the people following him and
his place in history. It was hardly surprising, then, that Watson, who is 57,
won his third Senior British Open on Sunday the Watson way. The scoreboard said
he won by shooting even-par 284 over a wind-raked Muirfield links, which was a
stroke better than Stewart Ginn and Mark O'Meara could do. But Watson's
tight-lipped smile, which rarely left his face, said he won because he couldn't
lose. ¶ Attitude counts for a lot in links golf, where nature and man often
conspire against the player. The East Lothian wind was relentless last week,
blowing the creases off trouser legs and making flags pop like small-arms fire.
The Muirfield rough was a nightmare--waist-high in places and so thick that
three-time British Open champ Gary Player nearly demanded that it be tested for
drugs. "It surprises me," said Player, "that they have made the
Senior Open so much tougher than the regular Open. It sends the wrong
message." ¶ Muirfield was so tough in Friday's belt-loosening wind that
first-round co-leader Nick Job, who started at three under, shot an 85 and
missed the cut. On Saturday, when the gale blew straight off the Firth, only 16
of 77 players managed to par the 449-yard 1st hole, and the last two threesomes
were collectively nine over par before they reached the 2nd tee. "The
situation of only one semi-cut is stupid and over the top," said Job,
referring to Muirfield's mowing scheme of short rough that abruptly ends at
knee-deep hay. "It's too demanding, really. The fairways are narrow in the
best of times."
Watson, after a
second-round 71, had a different take: "I loved it out there. It was just a
great day on the golf course."
But that was a
five-time British Open champion speaking. And even Watson admitted that he had
not always cherished the linksland. "When I first came over here," he
said on Saturday, "I tried to fight the wind and the general conditions.
But that didn't work." So the young Watson decided to give in. "Not
surrender, mind you, but to go with it, to use the wind. Once I did that, my
links game improved."
was not lost on his peers, who tried to emulate his carefully distilled
fatalism. In one of last week's subplots, the Drogheda man, Des Smyth, made
Irish eyes smile by taking the second-round lead at two-under 140. Smyth was
trying to follow in the week-old footsteps of British Open champ Padraig
Harrington, whose smile still lit Ireland five days after his triumphant return
to Dublin. (Smyth, who made a run at glory when the British Open was played at
Muirfield in 2002, retreated in Saturday's gale and tied for 10th.) Eduardo
Romero raised similar hopes among Argentine golf fans, who were still giddy
over the exported heroics of U.S. Open winner Angel Cabrera and British Open
contender Andrés Romero (who was busy last week winning the Deutsche Bank on
the European tour). Eduardo, who lost last year's British Senior to Loren
Roberts in a playoff at Turnberry, fell short again at Muirfield, going 73-74
on the weekend to tie for fourth.
But it was
television's Nick Faldo, making his Champions tour debut, who commanded the
most attention. The Englishman turned 50 on July 18, and he showed up at
Muirfield with a rusty game and a calculated flippancy, saying, "I am just
going to tag along." But Faldo, who won two of his three British Open
titles at Muirfield, carries fond memories of the 1987 Open, at which he made
18 final-round pars to edge Paul Azinger, and the '92 Open, at which he birdied
two of the last four holes to overtake John Cook. It was Muirfield '92, in
fact, where the previously stoic Faldo unmasked himself with a giddy gallop
through a trophy ceremony that featured a crying jag, a croaky rendition of
Frank Sinatra's My Way and Faldo's classic thanking of the tabloid press
"from the bottom of my--well, from my bottom, maybe." These days,
ironically, he spends 44 weeks a year sitting on his bottom for CBS and Golf
Channel. "I can go on memories," Faldo said after a practice round last
week, "but I've still got to hit the golf ball."
So no one was more
surprised than Faldo when he went out on Thursday morning and shot 68, good for
a quarter share of the first-round lead. "You have to walk yourself through
it rather than it being automatic," he said afterward, hinting that age and
infrequent practice have made his otherwise fit body a less dependable machine.
"You can't simply stand up and swing."
In all other
respects, time seemed to have delivered Faldo to Muirfield in a stretch limo.
He looked even taller and straighter than he did while winning three Masters
titles between 1989 and '96. His hair was movie-star thick, his smile
movie-star broad. He emoted more than he used to, waving his putter in
frustration when a putt veered left or right, squatting in the fairway and
staring at the ground after a disobedient approach shot. He has developed the
skill set of the celebrity golfer, and it's safe to say that there was no more
charismatic player at Muirfield.
unfortunately, is no red carpet. The long grass grabbed Faldo's drives
repeatedly over the next three rounds, and he looked noticeably tired when he
finished play on Sunday at 292, in 14th place. "Boy, does he grind,"
Watson said of Faldo after playing with him for the first two rounds. "He
takes three practice swings, and he's trying everything possible to play the
best possible shot."
too, but he's less deliberate than Faldo, and there were times last week when
he hit key shots almost heedlessly. Weighing on his mind--lurking, perhaps,
behind the cloud formations that fascinated him so--was the memory of his
final-round collapse in last month's U.S. Senior Open in Haven, Wis., where
Watson shot 43 on the final nine to hand the tournament to Brad Bryant. Asked
at Muirfield if he wanted to erase that memory, Watson nodded and said, "I
hate failure. I need to get even."
To do that, he
first had to catch Ginn, the third-round leader. Ginn, whose wire-rimmed
spectacles and long, frizzy hair make him look like a hippie candlemaker, is an
Australian-born pro who lives in Malaysia. Before Muirfield, he had done
nothing much in 2007--he was 121st on the Champions money list--but he is a
former winner of the Ford Senior Players Championship, which the senior tour
treats as a major. "I haven't done stoutly well on links," he conceded
on Saturday, "but I guess as you get older, you understand it a little bit