Picture – Tom Watson is embraced by his caddie, Neil Oxman, and is embraced by the golf world, after Watson loses the playoff to Stewart Cink in the 2009 British Open at Turnberry. Photo copyright Getty Images/Stuart Franklin
by Blaine Newnham
Just like he said he would, Fred Couples called me from a hotel room in Houston.
“Exhausted,’’ he said, “but good.”
Couples talked about life on the Champions Tour, his chances at Augusta the next week, the fact that hitting a draw with a driver has increased his distance and helped his back.
He’s every old guy’s hero.
But as much as I’ve enjoyed the conversations with him over the years and watching him play, my hero is the only guy to beat him this year on the Champions Tour, Tom Watson, who is nearer to me in age and certainly driving distance.
I mean with due respect, Freddy, at 50, is a physical freak.
I was glad to see the USGA give the 60-year-old Watson a special exemption for this year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he won in 1982. He is, in fact, the only player who will have played in every Open held at Pebble.
This is a sentimental pick, of course, but Watson can still play, if not contend.
Special exemptions? I saw Ben Hogan play in the 1966 U.S. Open because he got an exemption, and I’ll never forget it. This will be Watson’s fifth special exemption to play in the Open and they don’t give that many. The last went to Nick Price in 2005.
In his four other exempted Opens, Watson not only made the cut each time, but finished in the top 30.
This year he shot 67 in the first round of the Masters and finished tied for 18th.
Couples aside, Watson is the most relevant senior in golf, a connection to the era of Nicklaus and Trevino while at the same time a player who can still play.
He birdied the last two holes in Hawaii to hand Couples his early Champions Tour defeat.
If Watson had been able to get up-and-down from the back of the green on 18 at Turnberry in last summer’s British Open, he would have been the most revered major champion since Francis Ouimet, who as an amateur won the 1913 U.S. Open in Boston.
Watson admitted he has a better chance at the British than he does at the U.S. Open. He said there were holes at Augusta where it was all he could do to reach and find the green, let alone worry about pin seeking.
How will he do at Sahalee for the U.S. Senior Open? Good question. He can hit it pure, we know that. He won’t rattle as many trees as most.
There are those who think Watson was less than pure and a hypocrite in scolding Tiger Woods about his behavior. Watson went through a divorce 13 years ago and recently married Hilary, the former wife of touring pro Denis Watson.
Nonetheless, it was Tom Watson’s comments about Woods’ obligation to the game that rang true with me. I’m glad he had the guts to make them.
“The swearing and the club throwing have to stop,” said Watson before Woods had decided to play in the Masters.
It was a comment only Watson could make.
Nicklaus is normally the spokesman for the game, but given he and Woods are locked in an historic battle for the most major wins it was not appropriate for him to speak up.
Watson got it right. Woods, as evidenced by an outburst at Augusta, is still trying to.
I couldn’t believe what an enduring hero Watson was in the British Isles following his five Open Championship victories there. They had his picture in the clubhouse at Ballybunion in Ireland where he would practice before the British. He shared their values for the game.
Blaine Newnham is the former sports columnist and assistant managing editor for the Seattle Times. He covered the 1966 U.S. Open, following Ben Hogan around the Olympic Club. He covered his first Masters in 1987, when Larry Mize won it in a playoff with an unlikely chip shot. He covered the four majors of the “Tiger Slam”, when Woods won his four consecutive championships. In 2002, Blaine wrote a book titled “Golf Basics”.