SOUTH BEND, Ind. – As he approaches his 70th birthday, Tom Watson has lost more than a few things. He just hasn’t lost his sense of humor.
“I’m losing my hair, I’m losing my hearing, and I’m losing my distance off the tee,” Watson said Wednesday at the Warren Golf Course at Notre Dame, where the 40th U.S. Senior Open begins Thursday. “I’m at a loss in a lot of different ways. But I’m still healthy, and I’m very grateful for that.”
Winner of the 1982 U.S. Open, Watson is competing this week in his 52nd USGA championship and his 17th U.S. Senior Open, which he has never won, though he has had six top-five finishes.
He turns 70 on Sept. 4. He has no special plans to celebrate it. “What’s September 4?” he said, feigning ignorance and grinning. “You blab to the whole world I’m 70 years old on September 4? Thanks a lot.”
Having cut back on his schedule, Watson has competed just five times this year and skipped the first two senior majors. He has no idea how many more times he’ll play in this championship, but it’s clear he has a special affinity for USGA events. The influence of his dad, Ray, is woven tightly into his golfing DNA.
“It started with my father, who said, ‘If you win the U.S. Open Championship, you’ve beaten the best field on the toughest golf course you’re going to play.’ And so when I was a kid growing up, it was a U.S. Open, that was the tournament I wanted to win,” he said. “It still is.”
The major championship that came to define him was the British Open, which he won on five occasions. Three times he won the senior version among 14 titles on the PGA Tour Champions. That why he serves as global ambassador for the Open Championship and just two weeks ago played in an outing at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, site of this year’s championship.
Watson seems to be enjoying more the ceremonial aspects of being an elder statesman. In 2017, he didn’t play in any of the four majors for the first time in his career. He stepped away from the game for all but six starts last year as his wife Hilary battled pancreatic cancer. She now is in remission.
This is not to say Watson doesn’t still work at it. He played nine holes at the Warren Course on Wednesday and then beat a couple of bags of balls, searching for a more reliable swing. He hit more than a dozen balls out of a divot with a utility club, making the challenge even more difficult by bumping the ball up against the back of the impression.
“If you can hit it solid out of a divot, you should be able to hit it solid with a good lie,” he reasoned.
He just can’t generate the length he once enjoyed. Remember, almost 70.
During the practice round, he sidled up to Darren Clarke, who is 50 and playing in his first U.S. Senior Open, and said to him, “I’ll pay you for it.” Clarke was puzzled. “I’ll pay you a lot of money,” Watson told him, “for 50 more yards.”
Watson’s U.S. Open triumph came at Pebble Beach. The Kansas native drew special satisfaction from watching Gary Woodland, another Kansas native, take the 119th U.S. Open two weeks ago on the Monterey Peninsula.
“I haven’t had a chance to talk with him,” Watson said of Woodland. “I Tweeted out, ‘I was extremely pleased as a fellow Kansan. We Kansans have a special affinity for the 17th hole at Pebble Beach.’”
Woodland chipped from off the far side of the putting green to within two feet to save par on the 17th hole in Sunday’s final round to preserve his lead.
In 1982, tied with Nicklaus, Watson sent his tee shot on the famous par-3 hole over the back-left portion of the green. Now short-sided, he appeared headed for a bogey, but instead chipped in for birdie after having told his caddie Bruce Edwards that he could make it, orchestrating one of the most memorable shots in U.S. Open history.
Watson and Nicklaus, who won the 1972 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach among his record-tying four titles, were among 32 living U.S. Open champions who gathered at Pebble on the Tuesday before this year’s championship for a reunion celebration at the Beach Club just off Stillwater Cove. That was something. That was special. You could tell just from reading Watson’s eyes as he spoke about the occasion.
“It was delightful to be there with 32 out of 36 living U.S. Open champions,” he said. “We had a chance to mingle and talk, and the old guys got to talk with the young guys, the young guys got to talk with the old guys. Jack and I were co-hosting, and when I got up to speak, I said, Jack, I’m sorry to do this, but just look over my shoulder here.”
Nicklaus didn’t catch on at first. Watson was pointing out the window behind him at the 17th green.