WHEN he arrived at St Andrews on Sunday and took a tour of the Old Course, 45-mile-per-hour winds were out of the west, meaning you could just about reach the par four 18th green with a hybrid or even a long iron.
Three days later, the last shot to practice for the 139th Open Championship, Tom Watson stepped outside and discovered sheets of rain and wind roaring in from the east, meaning you would need a driver and 3 iron if you hoped to reach the 18th in regulation.
“A different golf course from Sunday,” Watson said. What followed was a gentle smile and the pointed wisdom you’d expect of a 60-year-old Hall of Famer.
“But it’s the same old St Andrews.”
Thank the heavens for that, because while on too many occasions we are shuffled off to professional tournaments where hideous forced-carries, contrived water holes, and greens complexes that appear to be elephant burial grounds are part of the stage, at the Old Course it is golf as it was always meant to be played.
Simple and unpretentious as it is, St Andrews is a priceless jewel the likes of which these players rarely encounter. While some will offer criticisms of the blandness of the 18th hole or the movement of the 17th tee, for the most part people accept that the Old Course is right there in front of you — defenseless, perhaps, when the wind lies down, but a challenge as relevant today as it was when first tossed in the rota in 1873.
Despite what you may think, given his vast experience in this championship, Watson was not a part of that field. But in this, his 33rd Open Championship, Watson is playing St Andrews for the sixth time. It remains, however, one of the few courses in the rota that has not rewarded him, as he has prevailed at Carnoustie, Turnberry, Muirfield, Troon, and Birkdale.
He hinted at a reason why.
“St Andrews is a hard course to understand, and you have to re-learn it and re-learn it all the time.”
That is not to suggest, however, that Watson has never handled the Old Course during an Open Championship. On the contrary, in 1984 he tied for second, just two shots behind the great Seve Ballesteros. That’s a memory one cannot escape this week, because up and down Golf Place and Scores Street, Links Parade, and North Street, there are photos of Ballesteros and his legendary fist pump to celebrate that claret jug 26 years ago.
TIME, of course, has rushed on and while another generation of golf stars have moved into view, Ballesteros is unable to even travel to St Andrews to be feted by a passionate golf citizenry that adores him. Weakened by his battle with cancer, the great man is home in Spain, though he was shown via a satellite during Tuesday’s champions dinner.
“He said, ‘I wish I could be there,’ ” Watson said. “It was sad.”
But what pushes that sadness aside is a memory of the dashing Spaniard who is as beloved as any Open Championship winner. He played the game with an unmatched flair and deserves great credit for revitalising the European PGA Tour and most especially the Ryder Cup.
Ballesteros was that important, and when it was announced that the icon was not going to take part in the Champions Challenge, you could sense a layer of disappointment enveloped the Auld Gray Toon.
Alas, the challenge never took place, thanks to Wednesday’s weather, but maybe it was a signal from the golf gods that if the show weren’t going to include Ballesteros, then there needn’t be a show. Besides, the show that matters most will commence this morning when 1999 Open champion Paul Lawrie fires the opening tee shot at 6:30. Nearly 10 hours later, the final game will start, by which time a greater picture of the championship will have come into view.
The answer is blowing in the wind — though it remains to be seen whether it’s coming from east or west.
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