Historians of the golfing world on both sides of the Atlantic are no doubt still quivering at what Tom Watson did to another shrine of the game last week when he completely leveled the dunes and shaved the heather of wonderful old Muirfield, hard by Vardon Road in Gullane, East Lothian, Scotland. A little more of this and the antique sporting event that is the British Open will have to be subtitled the Watson Charity Classic.
In the most complete victory he has yet achieved over a world-class field and in the most confident and matter-of-fact way, Watson swept away both his competition and a treasured golf course's reputation in winning his third British Open, each of them, oddly, in Scotland, in only six tries. En route he produced a score to rattle the foundation of the Royal and Ancient heaquarters in St. Andrews.
All Watson did was leave everyone as far behind him as Edinburgh Castle when he won by four strokes that more often than not seemed closer to 15 or 20. In so doing, he put into the history book a 72-hole total of 13-under 271, which was merely seven shots lower than anyone had ever registered on the revered Muirfield course.
Perhaps even more impressive are the following: Watson has now run up the two lowest winning totals in British Open annals, and has joined a rather select group of American golfers who have won three or more British Opens, the world's oldest professional championship. Those chaps are none other than Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Jack Nicklaus.
Watson had previously won the British Open at Carnoustie in 1975 and at Turnberry in 1977. It was at Turnberry that Watson and Nicklaus staged their remarkable duel over the last two rounds, which Watson finally settled by firing a surreal 268 to Jack's equally astonishing 269, thereby destroying the monument of Turnberry and lowering the tournament record by eight strokes.
What Watson did at Muirfield, in taking his fourth major title—he won the Masters in 1977—and racking up his sixth tournament victory of the year, was rip apart the exalted landscape with rounds of 68, 70, 64 and 69. Better yet for those on hand to observe them, each of the rounds was unique.
On Thursday, which ended with Watson tied with Lee Trevino for the lead, his 68 was carefully sculpted through a bothersome rain and a slight chill, both of which came and went and came and went, along with a nagging breeze. Well aware that he had arrived with his game very sharp, Watson's problem on the first day was to keep his grips dry and his hands warm.
Friday's round was a test of patience, for he made no big putts although he continued to play superbly. The day was the more difficult because the weather had turned benign, and Muirfield was giving up low rounds to mere mortals.
Watson's second-round virtue was rewarded on Saturday when he blazed home with the 64 that left Trevino, who had started the day with a three-stroke lead, wondering what exactly had happened. This was the round that put the championship in Watson's hands to win or lose in Sunday's finish, and rarely before has the best golfer in a field gone out and shown just how superior he is.
At the moment on Sunday when the right psychological time came for Watson to demoralize his nearest pursuers, Trevino and Ben Crenshaw, both of whom were hanging in there should catastrophe befall the leader, Watson strung together birdies at the 7th, 8th and 9th holes with an unflinching exhibition of his entire repertoire of shots. Either riding the wind or boring through it, he put a four iron within 15 feet of the flag at the 185-yard par-3 7th and drained the putt; hit a one-iron off the tee and a five-iron to within seven feet of the par-4 8th and drained it; and then, after driving beautifully, let a four-iron get slightly away to the right rough at the par-5 9th, but quickly recovered with a delicate chip to within three feet for the door-closer.
"I wanted this one badly," Watson said. "I'd gone three years without a major, and once you win a few of them, you get spoiled. I woke up too early Sunday morning, but I went back to sleep for three more hours and dreamed about victory."
In the debris behind Watson, Trevino, the runner-up, said, "I'm not disappointed. I finished second to the greatest player in the world." And Nicklaus, who had both won and lost at Muirfield in the past and feels so sentimental about the place he named his own club in Columbus, Ohio after it, could only say, "I can't believe anybody shot 271 here."
Muirfield is a place with a golfing history that is perhaps second only to St. Andrews', although members of The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers consider their irons and cleeks and memories of the game to be more venerable than those of the Royal and Ancient. Muirfield's Honourable Gentlemen claim to be the oldest golfing society. And there is at least one reading of history that holds that the game was actually founded by some nameless Honourable Gentleman at Leith, rather than by a shepherd at St. Andrews, whereupon the Honourable Gentleman transported it down the road, first to Musselburgh and then to Gullane, the township on the Firth of Forth where Muirfield is located.
The British Open dates back to 1860 but it wasn't until 1892 that the championship began to be settled over 72 holes—at Muirfield, during the first of the 12 Opens those links have now hosted. Since then, Muirfield's distinction as a layout has been enhanced by the mighty names that have won there. The first of Vardon's six Open titles came at Muirfield. James Braid won there, and Ted Ray. Then the likes of Hagen, Henry Cotton, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Trevino. This roll call insured that no second-rater would win there in 1980.
Arguments as to which is the greatest of Muirfield's glories have raged over the years. Its two nines wheel clockwise and counterclockwise, offering the most diverse wind directions of any British links. The course doesn't have a single water hazard, and its multiplicity of bunkers provide the steepest banks and flattest lies of any British lay out. Moreover, the bunkers are of the "inviting" variety: they are surrounded by smooth surfaces, rather than by fringe, and that means balls have a tendency to roll right into them.
Linkslands in Britain have to be buffeted by wind, however, or their difficulty is half removed. As the Scottish proverb has it, "no wind, no golf." In 1977 Turnberry was exposed by the calm; that was when Watson and Nicklaus scored their 268 and 269, respectively, figures that alarmed British golfing enthusiasts who had regarded Turnberry as the Pebble Beach of Scotland.
The wind deserted Muirfield last week for the first three rounds. Oh, there was a breeze, in and out, and, as noted, during Thursday's opening 18 it was accompanied by a grayness, a damp chill and occasional rain. But it still wasn't true "Pringle weather," and these gentle puffs could by no means be called a gale such as is customary for the British Open.
If the golfer stayed dry and kept his hands warm, he could score at Muirfield on Thursday. The 68s that Watson and Trevino shot to tie for the lead were, after all, among 12 subpar rounds that day. Hardly a cruel day for golf, all other journalistic reports and statements from disappointed golfers to the contrary.
On Friday and Saturday Muirfield was devoid of any appreciable wind, and the greens and fairways had been softened by many rains. These elements combined to lay the course open. Muirfield surrendered numerous 67s and 68s, the most important one on Friday being Trevino's 68, for it gave him a seven-under-par 135 and his three-stroke lead.
But the real indication of Muirfield's vulnerability during the second round came when a failed bike racer and unhappy lawyer from Argentina named Horacio Carbonetti wandered into the press tent and confirmed the rumor that he had fired a course-record 64. Carbonetti, 32, also confirmed the fact that he had never married—"Thank you, God," he joked—and that he played golf with a two-wood, the long-forgotten brassie, and that he is a well respected golfer in his country. No one had seen any of his round, of course, so he amused the press corps with some of its details, each hole seeming to end up with Carbonetti saying, "Fifteen yards, one putt."
Carbonetti's 64 was sandwiched between rounds of 78 and 78, so, alas, he wasn't among the competitors for Sunday's final round, having missed the second cut. At that, he still wound up in good company, Arnold Palmer and Player having also missed cuts.
On Saturday there was a virtual tidal wave of birdies on the warmest, stillest day of the tournament, a day featuring three absolutely incredible rounds among another torrent—32 in all—of subpar scores. In succession there was another 64, this one by Hubert Green, then a 63 by Isao Aoki, who had won an Oscar for Best Supporting Golfer at the recent U.S. Open, and finally the 64 by Watson, which looked so effortless that it was almost unspectacular. Each of these rounds deserves special comment.
First, Green's 64 in Scotland was as odd as the 65 he inserted into this year's U.S. Open. These were singular heroics surrounded by either routine or disappointing scores. At Muirfield, Green's 64 included two bogeys and a failure on his part to birdie the par-5 17th hole, practically a gimme birdie in the stillness of Friday and Saturday. He could easily have shot a 61.
Aoki's record-tying 63, matching the one Mark Hayes shot at Turnberry in 1977 for the lowest single round in the history of the British Open, was also unique because it was framed by rounds of 74 and 73. With the nose of his putter still pointing up, Aoki made all of his putts on Saturday, it seemed, as he used only 24 strokes on the greens in a round of nine threes and nine fours. At that, Aoki missed a trio of six-footers. If he'd made them, he would have scorched Muirfield with a 60.
Watson's 64, which made up seven strokes on Trevino and gave him the four-shot lead he carried into the last round, was less bizarre. It was in fact an almost flawless round of golf; he simply drove the ball down the fairways and hit it onto the greens, close to the pins rather more often than not. In that round, Watson looked as much like Byron Nelson, his favorite professor, as he ever had, playing swiftly, confidently, expertly, and burning the cups. On the last hole, when he made his only mistake—an approach iron which dribbled into a bunker—he went to one of his greatest strengths, the sand iron. Watson may be the best bunker player in the world right now, perhaps the best since Player at his peak. He flipped the ball out for a kick-in par and the score that left the field in tatters. "That's about as well as I can play," Watson said.
On Sunday, then, he had to prove himself in a different way. His two obstacles were the weather and his playing companion, Britain's Ken Brown, who may be the slowest golfer on the globe. The sullen, 23-year-old Brown, thin enough to be known as the "walking one-iron," had somehow managed to be tied with Trevino for second place after 54 holes.
As Watson's masterful shotmaking continued on Sunday, even in the stiff northeast wind, and his three successive birdies did away with whatever hopes Trevino and Crenshaw had, all that remained to challenge him was the tedium imposed by Brown. Here was one of the game's fastest players paired with the only golfer who could play more slowly than old Tom Morris in his grave at St. Andrews. For this reason, Watson's finishing 69, as low a score as was shot on Sunday, was almost as remarkable as his 64 of the previous day.
Brown has been penalized three times on the European tour for slow play, and he has even been suspended from international competition for a year because of his conduct at last September's Ryder Cup, when he spent an entire round refusing to speak to his teammate and partner, Des Smythe.
Now on Sunday at Muirfield the hordes of spectators were aghast to watch the next-to-last twosome of Trevino and Crenshaw open a three-hole gap between Watson and the walking one-iron, who kept backing off the ball and fidgeting. There was in fact a moment when Trevino and Crenshaw were striking their second shots in the 17th fairway while Watson and Brown were back on the 13th green. It is small wonder that someone in the gallery didn't hoist a sign saying FREE TOM WATSON.
When Watson's ordeal had ended—and Brown's 76 had dropped him into a tie for sixth—there was the opinion of Crenshaw, that acclaimed major championship dodger who has now finished fifth, second, second and third in his last four British Opens, that Watson was not actually at Muirfield. "Tom's playing golf on a different planet from the rest of us," said Crenshaw.
Nothing was more true last week at what used to be Muirfield.
While the likes of Craig Stadler (center, above) found the going rough. Trevino found a ray of sunshine in Thursday's bleak weather: a round of 68 that tied him for the opening-round lead.
The rain and chilly weather on Thursday brought Watson to the course in unseasonable headgear.
Nicklaus' final-round 69 got him a tie for fourth.
Ever so slowly, Brown drifted out of contention.