On the Saturday of the Senior Open at Royal Lytham, Tom Watson made the announcement that, as far as major championship golf is concerned, he was done.
“I don’t have the tools in the toolbox,” he said. “I’ve mentioned that before. I just don’t have what’s required to really compete successfully so, therefore, I’m declaring now that this is my last Senior British Open Championship.”
“I've had a good career playing professional golf all these years. I've run across so many fine people who have helped me and supported me. First of all, my wife who is battling cancer now. It's going to give me some time to go out and compete with her.”
Watson later recalled a telephone conversation with friend and greatest rival, Jack Nicklaus.
“What made you hang them up?” he asked. Nicklaus all but confirmed his decision was the correct one, as he replied: “probably because I couldn’t play anymore.” Watson would go on to add that he felt he was “spinning his wheels” and he hadn’t been able to compete the way he wanted.
Although born in Kansas, Watson is renowned as perhaps the greatest links golfer of all time. Of his eight Major Championship successes, five came on British soil at the Open Championship – one shy of the record set by Harry Vardon.
While Watson has victories to his name at Carnoustie, Muirfield, Troon and Birkdale, it's at Turnberry in 1977 that he wrote a legacy which will last lifetimes. The 1977 Open Championship is what many consider to be the best tournament played in the 20th century, the Duel in the Sun. at a time when the whole world seemed to have its gaze fixed on Ayrshire.
After two rounds, Watson and Nicklaus were in a four-way tie for second and within one shot of the lead. They would play with one another on Saturday and Sunday and produce some of the most iconic moments the game has ever seen.
Saturday saw both players card a five-under 65 and these two heavyweights would continue to trade blows in the final round. It was Nicklaus who burst out of the gates with two birdies in the first four holes to open a three-shot lead. Watson was unmoved, and birdied three of the following four himself.
The pair entered the par-five 17th level, Watson finding the green in two whereas Nicklaus’ attempt was pin high right. Watson’s two putt birdie piled the pressure on Nicklaus and, for once, he buckled, missing from four feet after a deft chip had appeared certain to keep him level. Watson had the lead as they strode off to the 18th tee, the Claret Jug still in the balance.
Then Watson produced a brilliant, brave, defiant drive down middle of the fairway, and stiffed his approach shot to two feet. The game was surely up.
Nicklaus, though, had other ideas. After his drive fell into the rough and just shy of the bushes, he mustered the strength to find the front of the green and then, somehow, holed the lengthy birdie up to force Watson to finish the job for the narrowest of wins.
Watson did it, of course, before the pair embraced, leaving the green arm-in-arm like the champions they are and the friends they have come to be.
Hubert Green – who finished 10 shots behind Watson in third place – maintained to his dying day that he won the 1977 Open Championship. He insists that he and the rest of the field were playing golf - and Watson and Nicklaus were on a different planet, doing something else entirely.
As Watson sets off into the sunset, it's that performance which will be remembered best. For some of us, the pain of 2009, when 59-year-old Watson ought to have won The Open again, live on. And yet, with each passing year, we're able to focus on the successes of decades previous.
In 1977, he produced golf from the gods, all the time pursued by one of the greatest players in history. Watson always was able to levitate when he teed up on links land.
Mother Nature was temperamental at the 2019 Senior Open, so a two-tee start was required in order to avoid a Monday finish.
This meant Watson could enjoy two ceremonious farewells to the crowd. His first bow and kiss came in front of the iconic clubhouse on the 18th (his ninth) with the second at his closing hole - the par-three ninth.
Watson closed with a par, removed his cap and gave a long wave and thumbs up to the crowd.
"The crowd that ended at the ninth hole, which is the farthest point on the golf course, that went all the way out there to watch my final hole, that was very very special," he confessed, and it's that relationship with his audience which has been constant throughout his career.
“I’ll always respect the way the game is played over here," he added. "The game of golf is played with a passion unequalled, and it’s part of the fabric of life that people have when they play golf here. That’s what I’ve always appreciated."
It was his 18th Senior Open appearance and the three-time champion never missed a cut. To this day, he remains one of only three men – alongside Gary Player and Bob Charles – to win the Senior Open and the Open Championship, a club Ernie Els will be looking to join and perhaps Phil Mickelson, too.
With 39 PGA Tour wins, eight major championships, six Senior majors, four Ryder Cup appearances and two captaincies under his belt, the Hall of Famer has achieved it all.
"There will be other people who will take the reins and they will do what I did. Life is full of passages and I’ve passed through my career here. Starting in 1975 to here in 2019 – it’s amazing."
Since this article was written, Hilary Watson passed away, two years after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“The void she leaves,” Watson wrote in a text to Golf Digest, “will be filled by memories which will always remain as they leave indelible marks on our souls which we will never forget. She said she was dying to live, not living to die throughout her entire ordeal with her cancer. She’s my hero.”