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Mike Downey

Turnberry Is Terrific for Watson

July 16, 1986|MIKE DOWNEY

TURNBERRY, Scotland — The golf-goofy Scots came a-running as soon as the Concorde jet from New York set down on Prestwick ground.

Twenty-deep at a railing outside the customs check-in, children roosting on fathers' shoulders, they gawked at the golfers who got off the airplane, nudging one another with a: "Thir's Bin Crinshaw! And Fizzy Zilla! Aye, and U-Bet Grin!"

One by one, these handsome lads from America filed by, having come to the wet west coast of Scotland to play a little golf. Ben Crenshaw. Fuzzy Zoeller. Hubert Green. Some of the best. Here for the 115th British Open, the big one--"the world championship of golf, you might say," in Tom Watson's words--and the second one ever played at Turnberry, the old World War II air base off the Irish Sea.

As the passengers disembarked, a single piper, kilt around his waist, bagpipes in his arms, bear-fur busby upon his head, strode into the airport and began to play. If only Watson had been on the plane.

This was the way he should have been welcomed back to Turnberry's bonny banks. This was the way he was serenaded the night he won the British Open of 1977, when he and Jack Nicklaus went at it shot for shot in what might have been the greatest golf war ever waged.

Watson and his wife danced and drank and wept together that night, overcome by Scottish mist and moonlight, and when they looked out from their top-floor hotel window before going to bed, a piper was strolling alone in their yard, dressed in plaid, playing a sweet tune.

"I remember the lone piper, going back and forth below us," Watson said Tuesday, upon his Turnberry return. "He evoked strong feelings in me about what I had just done."

It had been more than just a British Open championship, the second of his five, and it had been more than just a 12-under-par total of 268, which was eight strokes better than anybody had ever done before in this legendary event. It had been a tug of war against golf's greatest tugger, and no matter how hard Nicklaus yanked, Watson simply would not fall on his face.

Nicklaus shot 68 and 70, so Watson shot 68 and 70. Nicklaus shot 65, so Watson did likewise. Paired then, they crossed irons like swords, thrusting and parrying in a scene of almost mythological dimension, storm clouds appearing over the nearby waves and lightning streaking the sky.

Nicklaus led by two shots with six holes to go. Watson led by one shot with one hole to go. He took that lead by ramming home a 60-footer from off the green--with his putter.

On the 72nd and final hole, Nicklaus drove into the rough, the rough of Turnberry approximating the jungle of Kenya.

When he somehow punched an 8-iron onto the green from this thicket, the Scots came a-runnin' once more. They mobbed the scene of Nicklaus' shot, reverentially and superstitiously filling his divot with dozens of coins, bumping Watson's caddy to the ground and injuring his wrist in their stampede.

Nicklaus strode to the green and rolled home a 32-foot birdie putt. He had shot a 66. And that made Watson's 2 1/2-footer feel like 32 1/2. But Watson, with pulse racing, with thousands of disbelieving Scots hushed around him, dropped his own birdie putt. He had shot a 65. He had won one hell of a tournament.

The piper definitely had reason to play.

That was the only time the British Open has ever come to Turnberry, until now. A more memorable tournament is inconceivable, assuming you believe what they say about lightning. But Nicklaus is back, his career and reputation resuscitated by his wonderful win at the Masters, and Watson is back as well, feeling much the way Nicklaus felt before Augusta.

Watson may be the United Kingdom's king of clubs, having won the British Open five times, but since he has not taken a major of any kind since the British of 1983, or any PGA Tour event since the '84 Western Open, he has heard murmurs about "The Tom Watson Era" being over, about a changing of the guard from Watson and Nicklaus to, say, Severiano Ballesteros and Greg Norman, or perhaps to no great golfers in particular, but rather to an anonymous pack.

"Yeah, it doesn't make me feel very good," Watson said. "I'm not out here just trying to exist. I'm trying to win."

Almost as if sensitive to it, Watson at first Tuesday sounded reluctant to live in the past. The first mention of the 1977 British Open brought only: "One of my best wins." A subsequent comparison to the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach brought an equally short and snappy: "One of my best wins. I have several best wins."

But it came back to him, or seemed to, how much the Turnberry experience meant. Although he already had won the 1975 British Open, Watson said he still was not completely sure of himself. "Something was lacking in my own heart before then," he said. "That one proved something. It solidified my confidence."

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