Historians of the golfing world on both sides of the Atlantic are no doubt still quivering at what Tom Watson did to another shrine of the game last week when he completely leveled the dunes and shaved the heather of wonderful old Muirfield, hard by Vardon Road in Gullane, East Lothian, Scotland. A little more of this and the antique sporting event that is the British Open will have to be subtitled the Watson Charity Classic.
In the most complete victory he has yet achieved over a world-class field and in the most confident and matter-of-fact way, Watson swept away both his competition and a treasured golf course's reputation in winning his third British Open, each of them, oddly, in Scotland, in only six tries. En route he produced a score to rattle the foundation of the Royal and Ancient heaquarters in St. Andrews.
All Watson did was leave everyone as far behind him as Edinburgh Castle when he won by four strokes that more often than not seemed closer to 15 or 20. In so doing, he put into the history book a 72-hole total of 13-under 271, which was merely seven shots lower than anyone had ever registered on the revered Muirfield course.
Perhaps even more impressive are the following: Watson has now run up the two lowest winning totals in British Open annals, and has joined a rather select group of American golfers who have won three or more British Opens, the world's oldest professional championship. Those chaps are none other than Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Jack Nicklaus.
Watson had previously won the British Open at Carnoustie in 1975 and at Turnberry in 1977. It was at Turnberry that Watson and Nicklaus staged their remarkable duel over the last two rounds, which Watson finally settled by firing a surreal 268 to Jack's equally astonishing 269, thereby destroying the monument of Turnberry and lowering the tournament record by eight strokes.
What Watson did at Muirfield, in taking his fourth major title—he won the Masters in 1977—and racking up his sixth tournament victory of the year, was rip apart the exalted landscape with rounds of 68, 70, 64 and 69. Better yet for those on hand to observe them, each of the rounds was unique.
On Thursday, which ended with Watson tied with Lee Trevino for the lead, his 68 was carefully sculpted through a bothersome rain and a slight chill, both of which came and went and came and went, along with a nagging breeze. Well aware that he had arrived with his game very sharp, Watson's problem on the first day was to keep his grips dry and his hands warm.
Friday's round was a test of patience, for he made no big putts although he continued to play superbly. The day was the more difficult because the weather had turned benign, and Muirfield was giving up low rounds to mere mortals.
Watson's second-round virtue was rewarded on Saturday when he blazed home with the 64 that left Trevino, who had started the day with a three-stroke lead, wondering what exactly had happened. This was the round that put the championship in Watson's hands to win or lose in Sunday's finish, and rarely before has the best golfer in a field gone out and shown just how superior he is.
At the moment on Sunday when the right psychological time came for Watson to demoralize his nearest pursuers, Trevino and Ben Crenshaw, both of whom were hanging in there should catastrophe befall the leader, Watson strung together birdies at the 7th, 8th and 9th holes with an unflinching exhibition of his entire repertoire of shots. Either riding the wind or boring through it, he put a four iron within 15 feet of the flag at the 185-yard par-3 7th and drained the putt; hit a one-iron off the tee and a five-iron to within seven feet of the par-4 8th and drained it; and then, after driving beautifully, let a four-iron get slightly away to the right rough at the par-5 9th, but quickly recovered with a delicate chip to within three feet for the door-closer.