Tom's Last Charge: An Oral History of the 2009 British Open

Tom's Last Charge: An Oral History of the 2009 British Open

Ten years ago, a 59-year-old golfing legend nearly pulled off one of the most unlikely, incredible victories in sports history. Relive Tom Watson's magical run at Turnberry with this oral history.
July 15, 2019

This story appears in the July 15, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.


Ten years ago, a golf legend returned to the site of his greatest triumph, in his adopted homeland, ready to tee it up in the oldest tournament in the world.

Tom Watson arrived at the 2009 British Open at Turnberry—the seaside links on Scotland's western coast, where 32 years earlier he had bested Jack Nicklaus in the famous Duel in the Sun—just nine months removed from left-hip replacement surgery and three months after shooting a second-round 83 at the Masters, where he missed the cut by 12. He hadn't won a major in 26 years.

Most pertinent, he was 50 days short of his 60th birthday, more than 11 years older than Julius Boros was when he became the oldest player to win a major championship. As far as threats to capture the Claret Jug, Watson was on no one's short list—except his own. With the 2019 Open set to begin this week at Royal Portrush, in Antrim, Northern Ireland, we turn the clock back a decade.

TOM WATSON (eight-time major champion) Coming into the tournament, I was playing about as well as I could tee to green, but my putting was terrible. Then I made an adjustment on Tuesday and started putting it very, very well.

Wednesday's practice round confirmed it. I felt so comfortable on that course. I'd played it five times in a major. I looked at the field, and 95% of the guys hadn't ever played Turnberry in a tournament. On Wednesday night I said to my wife, "I can win this thing."

HILARY WATSON I'd never heard him say that. I didn't know if he was serious, but I said to him, "Well, you've done it before."

ANDY NORTH (two-time major champion and close friend of Watson's, who was on ABC's broadcast team for the Open) A lot of people don't understand that Tom struck the ball as well as or better in his 50s than he did in his 20s or 30s. And the golf ball doesn't have any idea how old you are.

TOM WATSON I knew the weather forecast. The winds were going to change from a south wind, which is the direction it blew for the first three practice rounds, to a northwest wind on Friday. And those kids had not played with the northwest wind. I had a number of times, and I knew it would really change the golf course a lot. There was no age consideration in my assessment of the way I could play the golf tournament that week.

Open Championship setups are entirely wind dependent. When it's blowing hard, fiery links flash their teeth. Each hole becomes a vexing crucible of course management. But when the wind is calm and players can launch the ball high, the courses are vulnerable to low scores. That's what happened on Thursday, when 50 players broke 70. That included Watson, whose bogey-free 65 put him just one shot off the lead.

TOM WATSON My plan was to go as low as I could on Thursday to get a little cushion, because I knew it was going to be rough once the wind came and changed.

MIKE TIRICO (lead broadcaster for ABC) Tom was already on our radar because of the Duel in the Sun, so we were watching him. Then he has a great first round, and I remember thinking that three years earlier Fred Couples [at 46] had finished third at the Masters. At the [2008] Open, Greg Norman [at 53] held the 54-hole lead. So an older guy playing well in a major, it wasn't completely unprecedented.

MICHAEL BAMBERGER (former SPORTS ILLUSTRATED senior writer) Only in his face did he look like a 59-year-old man. He had the lined, weathered face of a guy who had been in the sun and wind. But his swing was the same. Quick rhythm, hit at the bottom. And in terms of his body type—fit, strong man. It didn't feel fluky at all.

HILARY WATSON Anyone can shoot 65 one day and then 78 the next. I wasn't really expecting anything for Friday.

The wind did arrive and, true to the forecast, it came from the northwest. Only seven players shot under par. Tom Watson wasn't one of them, but with an even-par 70 he entered the weekend tied for the lead with Steve Marino at 5 under. Watson found himself in his most familiar position: playing rock-solid golf, at the Open Championship, in Scotland. His quest for a record-tying sixth Claret Jug was the talk of the sports world.

 

Sports Illustrated

FRED VUICH (former SI photographer) He rolled in this 60-footer for birdie at 18 on Friday and did what can only be described as a Radio City Rockette kick. I had never seen him do anything like that in my years covering him. He was truly just riding the emotion that week.

TOM WATSON People were excited. I knew it. On Thursday after I shot 65, my email system on my laptop just shut down.

BAMBERGER Why have the Scots taken to him so much? Watson is a stoic. The national character of Scotland is stoicism. His attitude on the course is, I got myself here, and I'll get myself out of it. He's ruthlessly independent that way.

PAUL AZINGER (1993 PGA champion and lead analyst for ABC) People started to watch who don't watch golf every day. It had a kind of Tiger effect. People were tuned into that Open Championship simply because of what Watson was doing. They knew the story.

NEIL OXMAN (Watson's caddie since 2003) His support there was unreal. I mean, he'd walk up to the second green on Thursday and receive a standing ovation. It would make your hair stand up. It didn't matter how he was doing. It gave you goose bumps.

The wind blew again from the northwest on Saturday, and as Turnberry dried out, the course grew more difficult. Watson found himself three over through 15 holes before birdies at 16 and 17 propelled him to a one-shot advantage, making him the oldest man to lead a major after 54 holes. The leader board through three rounds:

Tom Watson -4
Ross Fisher -3
Mathew Goggin -3
Retief Goosen -2
Lee Westwood -2
Stewart Cink -1
Jim Furyk -1

TIRICO I remember Saturday's round being wholly unremarkable in many ways. Tiger had missed the cut, and the biggest names in the sport at the time—Phil, Vijay, those guys—weren't in the mix. So I thought as we got through Saturday, he really had a chance.

HILARY WATSON On Saturday night we were at the Turnberry Hotel having dinner. Tom was looking out the window and the sun was beaming down. There was just an amazing sense of calmness about him. It was very surreal.

BAMBERGER Neil and I were staying at the same hotel, up the road right on the Royal Troon course. We had a three-hour dinner that Saturday night and never talked once about Sunday's round. That's how big it was.

TOM WATSON I got off to a shaky start on Sunday. Didn't hit a good approach, hit it over the green on 3 and couldn't get up and down. But I hit a solid tee shot on 4, and I eventually edged my way back into position.

MATHEW GOGGIN (Watson's playing partner on Sunday) The crosswinds just didn't affect him. A perfect example is the tee shot on 3. There's a smothering wind from right to left, and I'm aiming it at the gorse right of the fairway and still missed left. He pops one right-center of the fairway, and it moves about five yards left. He was hitting these little knuckleballs all day, cutting right through the wind. I could see immediately that he was on. He was good enough.

TIRICO That day was as close to the hardest thing that I've ever had to broadcast. You want to be able to put it in proper historical context. So after a little thought, it kind of arrived to me that if he could pull this off, it would be one of the biggest wins in the history of sports. Period.

AZINGER I'm 59 right now, and what he was doing is unimaginable for me. I just marvel at what it takes to stay competitive for that long. To be willing to go to that rock pile and hit those putts and hit those bunker shots and pitches and chips. The practice. It's all part of it.

Watson birdied the par-3 11th to tie Goggin and Lee Westwood for the lead. Westwood led by himself after Watson and Goggin both bogeyed 14, but the Englishman bogeyed 15, 17 and 18 and wound up finishing tied for third. Meanwhile, Stewart Cink birdied the 18th to post 2 under, tying Watson atop the leader board. But after Watson answered with a birdie of his own at 17, he needed just a par-4 on the straightforward but windswept 18th to win the Open Championship.

GOGGIN There's a big bunker on the left side of 18, the kind of links bunker you just cannot hit it in or you're playing out sideways. I laid up well short of it. And then Watson takes out his rescue, club and I'm thinking, Why take anything on? Just hit a 4-iron and be on your way. And he gets up there and rips a tight little draw down the center. And I'm thinking, That's why he's won all the majors.

NORTH He put it in the exact spot you'd want to have it.

After splitting the fairway, Watson was 187 yards from a back pin. The front edge of the green was 165.

OXMAN The conversation was simple. He said, 'Ox, what are you thinking?' I said I liked the 8-iron. He said, 'So do I.' I didn't think an 8-iron would go through the back of the green, which was 196. You just wanted to hit it on the front of the green and let it trickle back.

BAMBERGER I was standing in the rough, exactly even with Watson. He clipped it perfectly. And when that ball was in the air, I remember thinking this was going to be one of the most extraordinary feats in the history of sports, for a 59-year-old man to win the British Open.

TOM WATSON As soon as I struck it, I had a flashback to '77 at Turnberry. In '77, I remember looking up at my approach on 18 going right at the flag. Not right of it. Not left of it. Right at it. And that's what it looked like. A perfectly struck shot. The only thing I was concerned about was it staying on the green.

NORTH The greatest links player in the world played the shot exactly like he wanted to.

AZINGER I remember what I said on the broadcast—something along the lines of, "Andy, you and I were out there following him during the practice round, and he said if he got to this hole with a one-shot lead he's going to land the ball 10 to 15 yards short of the green." Well, he didn't. He landed it about an inch on the green.

VUICH It landed on the front edge and took this massive bounce forward. I couldn't believe how hard it bounced. I had been on 18 for several groups before, and every shot that landed there stayed on the green. If you hit that shot 100 times, it's staying on the green at least 95.

STEWART CINK For me, I thought Watson was going to win until I saw that ball land on 18. It was not that complicated a shot for a guy with his experience. My caddie and I had come up with a landing zone five to 15 yards short of the green. I landed it there, it rolled up to pin-high, I made birdie. He lands it on the green. As soon as his ball landed, my thought was, Time to go get ready for a playoff. I've heard it said so many times, what a terrible break he got on 18. But man, we were looking five to 15 yards short of the green. I think that indicated a tired decision.

OXMAN I've never seen the shot. Never seen a replay, never will. You know, for me, the ball is in the air, and that just makes me happy, seeing the ball in the air going right at the flag.

Watson's approach shot trickled over the green, then took a slope and ended up in the rough. He faced a decision: Chip it or putt it?

TOM WATSON I thought about chipping it. The ball was sitting down in a crater in the grass, though, and I thought it would be better to putt it. I thought I could hit it up by the hole, then make a putt to win.

GOGGIN I always thought his putt on 17 influenced that decision on 18. On 17 he putted from miles away and left himself a tap-in.

NORTH You had to give yourself a chance. You know you can't try the flop shot, because you can go right underneath it, and then you probably don't even get into a playoff.

Despite a less-than-perfect putt, Watson had an uphill eight-footer to win the British Open.

NORTH I had hit that putt at least 10 times that morning. It looks like it wants to break left, but it doesn't. I knew that if he tried to play it on the right edge, he wasn't going to make it. And despite knowing that, right before he putts, I said on the broadcast, "He's going to make this and win." [The putt came up short.] It's the most disappointing thing I've said in my broadcast career, and I wouldn't have said it if he wasn't my friend.

GOGGIN I feel like everyone felt like it wasn't going to go in. There was a sense of panic right after he hit it over the green, like something bad was going to happen.

TOM WATSON I said to myself, Just do it like you did when you were a kid. And I hit a lousy putt. Decelerated. It was just awful.

AZINGER One of the headlines I saw after—and this is superaccurate—was IT FELT LIKE SOMEONE SHOT SANTA CLAUS. When he missed that putt, it was done. Over. He made it obvious with his body language.

Cink and Watson began a four-hole playoff starting at number 5.

NORTH I didn't think there was any chance in the world he could beat Cink after that.

CINK It was such a difficult position he was in. And being 59 years old, I would imagine that he was really starting to feel the fatigue of the weight of the whole situation.

OXMAN When I think back, I made one mistake that day: not making him eat before the playoff. I should have gone to get him a turkey sandwich and an energy bar. He hadn't eaten anything since lunch, and it's got to be around 8 p.m. at that point. That's the one thing I've thought about.

HILARY WATSON The exhaustion he must have felt after 18 ... to then go straight into the playoff. You know, the younger guys aren't going to feel that tired.

TOM WATSON I felt ready for the playoff. I had been in that position before. Peter Dawson [the head of the R&A] came up to me and said, "Tom, if you want some time to prepare yourself, we'll give you all the time you need." And I told him, "No. Let's go. Let's get on with it."

The 36-year-old Cink beat Watson by six strokes to win his first major championship. Cink has not won a PGA Tour event since.

 

Stuart Franklin/Getty IMages

AZINGER It's too bad for Stewart, really. He's such a smart man. He knows the reality of it, and he knows everybody was more heartbroken that Tom Watson lost than they were happy that Stewart Cink won.

BAMBERGER I don't think of [Cink] as a villain at all. He won the Open. Nobody shot a lower score for 72 holes, and then he won the four-hole playoff. That's not being a villain. That's doing your job.

Despite the ending, Watson's age-defying run had captured the hearts and imaginations of so many.

TOM WATSON I remember going into the press room afterward. The journalists were dragging in there so slowly. I said, "Come on! This ain't a funeral!" I gave it my best shot and I came up short. Jack was always my model for how to handle a defeat. I beat him a few times, and he said some things to me that were really poignant. After '77 he put his arm around me and said, "Tom, I gave you my best shot and it wasn't good enough." That's the respect you have to give your fellow competitors.

HILARY WATSON I was nervous because I thought he was going to be completely devastated and depressed. He wasn't. That wave of depression never really came.

TOM WATSON What I remember most from after that week was the correspondence from people across the world. A very significant portion of them were from people who said they gave up things they love because of their age. They thought they were too old.

HILARY WATSON Thousands upon thousands of letters. He tried to reply to them all, but it was impossible. Those letters alone, from people who said they started pursuing their passions again after watching Tom, that in itself made everything worth it. In losing, he inspired so many.

BAMBERGER Sometimes we need our heroes to do something amazing, on a grand stage, with a really big megaphone, to wake us up to possibilities.

NORTH We never really talked about the week after except for one time. We were on a plane, just chit-chatting about schedules and stuff. And Tom leans over to me and says, "I hit that shot perfectly." And I said, "I know, buddy."