You do this sports writing business and speak with enough legends long enough, you start to take things for granted. Every now and then an interview or a subject stand out above the rest.
Sitting with Sam Snead for four hours in his Florida house. Getting a half hour with Tiger Woods alone behind the driving range at Torrey Pines. Being part of a casual conversation group with Jack Nicklaus outside the entrance to the R&A clubhouse at St. Andrews and having him say, I better not read that in the Augusta Chronicle tomorrow.
Another one of those moments came in 2006 at Royal Liverpool. I was desperately trying to steal a few minutes with five-time British Open champion Tom Watson to contribute a story for our Morris newspaper in Topeka, Kansas. I caught up with him leaving the driving range, but he was in a hurry to get started on his practice round.
Do you mind walking with me a few holes and talking? he said.
Are you serious? Would I mind walking down the middle of an Open Championship fairway with a bona fide Claret Jug legend? Yeah, I think I could handle that.
So I walked the first, second and third holes of Hoylake talking between shots with Watson about his long-standing love affair with links golf and the UK fans. We talked about why he keeps going overseas and keeps making cuts in the Open against a field filled with younger men. We talked about the admonishment his good friend and former rival Nicklaus gave him during a fishing trip a few weeks before.
What are you going over there for? Niclaus asked him as they stood in the middle of the Miramichi River on Prince Edward Island fly-casting for salmon.
To play in the British Open, Watson said.
To PLAY? Jack Nicklaus asked disgustedly. OK, Arnold.
Watson laughed as he retold the story walking up a beautifully crisp and burned out Hoylake fairway.
Thats all he had to say, Watson said of the friendly dig at the ceremonial implication of his statement. No, Im going over there to win. To compete. To beat these guys. That was it.
Even in his advanced years, Watson never stopped believing he could compete and win on the British Open stage.
I know how to play this kind of golf, he said.
Just a week earlier, Watson had told his hometown Kansas City newspaper the same thing.
I could win the British Open again, Watson said. Its not that far fetched.
Apparently not. Its three years later and Watson is on the doorstep of starting his seventh decade in this world, and he is leading the field entering the final round of the Open Championship at Turnberry a place he knows better than anyone else still trying to catch the old man. He played a round he called serene as he beautifully fouht back all the challenges to perpetuate what could go down as the greatest sports story in history.
The whole scene reminds me of another thing Watson said before I broke off and let him continue his practicing in peace at Hoylake. It was another Turnberry story, where he competed and finished 11th in the last British Open played there in 1994.
Watson being Watson and Turnberry being the site of his renowned duel with Nicklaus, he was brought into the interview room before the tournament to reminisce about old times. A writer asked the then-44-year-old Watson, What is it like having once been great?
A lesser man would have put the writer in his place for phrasing such an impudent query. Watson, however, answered thoughtfully.
When I stand over the ball on the tee, I look down the fairway and try to remember what it was I knew before, he said.
Well be watching him do just that today. Hes still got that going for him, which is nice.
Theres a dozen guys on his tail who could get hot and pull this thing out today. If one of them does, I for one will never forgive them. There is only one beautiful ending for this Open Championship.
Go get em Watson. Show everyone that theres a new Old Tom atop the British Open ledger, and his name isnt Morris anymore.