Tom Watson: pure class

Tom Watson

Great golfers tend to be great showmen and Tom Watson more than lived up to his star billing in the final round of the Australian Open at The Lakes.

A closing 69 – a good bet to be the best of the day in increasingly difficult conditions – completed an up-and-down week that contained two sub-70 rounds and a brace of disappointing 78s. For the sizeable crowd that rose so early on a Sunday morning – Watson teed off at 6.56am – this was a glimpse of just how golf was played before science overtook art.

“I had a smile on my face all day,” said Matt Ballard, the young Queenslander who accompanied Watson on what may just have been the eight-time major champion’s final competitive round in Australia. “It actually took me a few holes to realise I wasn’t out there as a spectator. I’ve always looked up to Tom, both as a golfer and a man and he didn’t let me down. He’s a fantastic player.

“Once the wind picked up on the back-nine, you could see the glint in his eye. He was really concentrating and he looked so at ease in the conditions. Plus, he was so nice to me all the way round. He made me feel very comfortable.”

For all that, Watson gave the impression of being slightly disappointed by his overall performance. A fractious Saturday had been mainly caused by jetlag, but a two-hour nap, a relaxing evening watching Swan Lake at the Sydney Opera House with wife Hilary and a good night’s sleep had him feeling fresher and ready for battle.

“It was a struggle in that wind, but I’m happy that I played so much better than yesterday,” he said. “I was finding the clubface today and that was the biggest difference.

“I’ve seen the handwriting on the wall though. At the last hole I was hitting a 2-hybrid to the green; most of these young kids would have been hitting maybe a 4-iron. It’s hard to compete with that.”

Speaking of youngsters, one who took the time to watch Watson finish – and pick his brain afterwards – was 14-year old Chinese Guan Tianling, the Asia-Pacific champion who next April will become the youngest-ever competitor in the Masters.

“Play a lot of practice rounds,” was Watson’s opening advice regarding the endless nuances of Augusta National. “And get a good caddie. The local guys all know the greens better than anyone and they will help you with the course. But I’ll see you there on Tuesday at 1pm. And keep getting straight As in school.”

There were words too for those unfortunates still to complete their final rounds.

“A good score this afternoon will be even par,” maintained Watson. “You need to hit the ball solid, on the clubface, in weather like this. That’s the only way you can control the ball, how far it goes. If you don’t have that solidity, it’s hard to judge distances.”

He wasn’t ruling out a return to Antipodean climes, even if it is after his playing days are over. Tasmania is high on his list of places to see. But it wasn’t long until his mind returned to golf and, specifically, how he could have done better than five over par for 72-holes.

“It felt like my upper body was moving around too much, which made it hard for me to hit solid shots,” he said. “I wasn’t able to get onto my left side enough. When that happens, I tend to ‘hang back’ and hit poor shots.”

The 1984 Australian Open winner was being a little harsh on himself though. Like all true champions, Watson finished with a flourish. That 2-hybrid to the final green was beautifully struck into the rising breeze. And if the resulting 25-foot putt had been struck an ounce harder, a closing birdie would have made the perfect ending.

But, no matter, what we actually got wasn’t too shabby either. And the warm ovation the 63-year old Watson received as he left the 18th green showed only too clearly how much the Australian public enjoyed his presence and his play. Class, pure class.

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