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Tom Watson keeps thinking up different ways to win the British Open. Last Sunday, on the rowdy Lancashire coast of England, he did it for the fifth time by waiting until almost the last minute and then playing what may have been the single best hole of his trophy-littered life. At that juncture Watson faced Royal Birkdale's toughest hole, the 18th, a 473-yard par 4 that looked as if it stretched from a towering sandhill to the Entebbe air terminal. Near that faraway green Hale Irwin, who had whiffed a two-inch putt the day before, was waiting with Andy Bean; the two of them were resting their hopes for an 18-hole Monday playoff on Watson stumbling to a bogey right here. They were in, Watson was out, and a lot of real estate lay between them and him. But, ho-hum, this was the British Open, the championship that simply brings out the best in Watson. The only thing he was going to whiff was a pork pie, maybe.
Even though he'd gone a full year since his 1982 British Open victory without winning, Watson is still the sport's premier shot-maker, and when he had to, he proved it. He smashed a 260-yard drive that literally split the heart of the fairway. He had 213 yards to the stadium-like green, grandstands to the sides, funny white clubhouse behind, and that's when he struck what he described as "the best two-iron of my life." The ball ate up the flag all the way and came to rest only 15 feet from the cup. A blind man could have two-putted for the victory, and Watson coolly did just that, knowing he had put them all away with that exemplary drive and perfect two-iron.
Watson's winning tap-in was about seven inches long, five inches longer than the one Irwin had carelessly missed on the 14th green on Saturday. That whiff would have been inconsequential had Irwin not fired a closing 67 Sunday, just as his playing partner Bean had done. Those scores got them to the clubhouse tied at 276, eight under par, and forced Watson to submit his swing and his grit to the most intense pressure there is in golf—needing par on the final hole of a major to win by a stroke.
"When you're playing well, it's easier to do the thing you have to do to win," Watson said. "I'd played well all week. I thought I could win Sunday unless somebody pulled a Larry Nelson on me."
Nelson had run the table at Oakmont last month to nip Watson in the U.S. Open, and for much of Royal Birkdale's last round Watson must have thought the United Nations was after him. Among the day's challengers were Great Britain's Nick Faldo, who had been a hero all week; Australia's early-finishing Graham Marsh, who started 2½ hours ahead of the leaders and dashed home with a seven-under 64 identical to the record-breaking score Craig Stadler had had in Thursday's opening round; America's Raymond Floyd, who can't seem to put together a good fourth round in the majors this year; Texas' Lee Trevino, a reborn celebrity throughout the Open; Harold Henning, a long-forgotten 48-year-old South African who came out of nowhere; and, finally. Bean and Irwin. In all, eight players held or shared the lead over the final 18 holes, and at least a half dozen others always seemed to be within a stroke or two.
"I was on the front nine when Marsh finished," Watson said. "A breeze had come up, and I thought his seven-under had a good chance to win. I knew what Andy and Hale were doing. You don't start thinking about what other players might do until the last nine holes in a major. I knew there were birdie holes back there, though, and I would get to them eventually."
Indeed, he did get there, but, as it happened, he birdied two of the non-birdie holes, the 11th and 16th, along with the predictable par-five 13th, to streak homeward in three-under 34 for his closing 70 and winning total of 275. That was nine-under on what had been advertised as a tough course, but which played rather tamely because of overwatered greens that held iron shots and putted slowly, and the conspicuous absence of a vicious British Open wind. Only by failing to birdie the gimme 17th, a par-five, did Watson set himself up for that golf-lesson finish on the rugged 18th.
Watson won his first British at Carnoustie back in 1975, in a playoff against Australia's Jack Newton. He next won at Turnberry in 1977 in a gutty head-to-head duel with Jack Nicklaus. Watson set the 72-hole Open record of 268 in that tournament. The third time, in 1980, he enjoyed one of those coast-ins when he buried the field at Muirfield, shooting 271, the second-lowest winning total. Last year he backed in at Troon after first Bobby Clampett and then Nicky Price collapsed. And this time he did it by letting his enormous talent guide him through a confusing maze of contenders and by pulling off glorious shots just when he needed them. At the end, his score was the third-lowest winning total ever.
This fifth British Open win in nine years, along with his 1977 and '81 Masters and '82 U.S. Open victories, gives Watson eight major titles. He was already the only man in the 112-year history of the British championship to have won on four different Scottish courses, and now he's the first to have won on five different courses, period. By winning in England, he joined 11 others who have won in both Scotland and England, a list that includes Arnold Palmer as well as Harry Vardon. But it is the fifth championship that puts Watson in the most elite and historic company, for only Vardon—who won six—J.H. Taylor, James Braid and Peter Thomson have won as many as five, and, except for Thomson, all competed before World War I. Not even Old Tom Morris or the legendary Young Tom Morris won the championship five times.
All those ghosts were with Watson as he came up the 18th fairway, with the mob bolting in all directions and the thousands of adoring fans perched in the bleachers that give the finishing holes of British Opens the look of a Liverpool-Manchester United football match.