Helen Ross / PGA Tour
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The wind was howling, and the heavy, damp air was bitterly cold. Darkness was settling over the Old Course on this miserable Friday evening like a mystical shroud of gray.
Even so, Ernie Els wasn’t about to let the R&A official stop his group just two holes from finishing the second round of 144th Open Championship — and a World Golf Hall of Famer named Tom Watson playing with him, primed to bid farewell.
“I went to the official and said, ‘C’mon, man. You’ve got a legend here,'” Els recalled as he walked to the locker room. “No one wants to come back and pitch up at 6:30 (Saturday morning). This is the way to send off a champion.”
And so it was.
Yes, you could actually count the fans still shivering in those massive, two-story grandstands behind the 18th green. But outside the metal fences that surround the storied course, on the blacktop that gives the “Road Hole” its name, the Scottish fans were 10 deep waiting to show the five-time Open champion how much he will be missed.
People took off running when his second putt at the 17th finally found the bottom of the cup. “It looked like the pubs had emptied out,” Els said with a chuckle, marveling at the scene.
Those who waited until after Watson, Els and Brandt Snedeker hit their tee shots at the 18th hole were rewarded with the traditional walk and wave on the Swilcan Bridge. So many cell phone cameras captured the moment that the flashes looked like a cigarette lighters at a concert begging for an encore.
And maybe they were.
Watson would later say the reception reminded him of what happened when the great Bobby Jones, shortly after he’d won the Grand Slam, returned to St. Andrews to play a “friendly,” an exhibition match, if you will.
“I’m not putting myself in the same shoes as Bobby Jones,” a humble Watson said. “But walking up that 18th hole, as the legend goes, Bobby Jones was engulfed by thousands of people who had come out and heard that he was on the golf course, and they watched him finish right there.
“And when I was going up there just across the road, I think I had an inkling of what Bobby Jones probably felt like. … There’s just so much joy in walking up that hole. I don’t know how to put it into any other words.”
As Watson walked past Rusacks Hotel, the crowd continued to swell. The R&A hospitality tent emptied, ushering men in suits and ladies in their Sunday-best, the occasional champagne or wine glass in hand, to the first tee for their glimpse of history.
Tom Lehman, the 1996 Open champ, was waiting near the grandstand to greet his long-time friend. So were Graeme McDowell, who had played in the group ahead of Watson, and Matt Kuchar, who actually had finished hours earlier.
Near the starter’s hut, Billy Horschel, the FedExCup champ, used his smart phone to capture video of the scene. Mark O’Meara, who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame on Monday, was there to lend support, too, as was another five-time Open champ, Peter Thomson.
The ovation continued long after Watson embraced his son Michael, who was caddying for his dad this one last time, on the 18th green. The Scottish fans love Watson because of his humility, humanity and the way he loves their game.
Watson won the first Open Championship he played in at Carnoustie 40 years ago — an unexpected win at an unexpected time, says the man for whom links golf was an acquired taste. More victories, four in a nine-year span, came at Muirfield, Troon, Birkdale and Turnberry in that unforgettable “Duel in the Sun,” with Jack Nicklaus.
St. Andrews had eluded him, although Watson, bidding to win the Claret Jug for the third straight time, did finish second to Seve Ballesteros here in 1984. So it was only fitting that the Home of Golf be his final curtain call.
“I wanted one more shot at the course,” he said with a smile.
Watson swears there were no tears, at least from him, on the emotional Friday evening, although he had to tell Michael to steel himself as the two walked down the 18th fairway that one last time.
“It’s all joy. It’s all joy,” Watson said firmly, a wistful smile on his face. “There’s no reason to be sad. I played a game for a living, and I played it pretty well over times. … It’s a special place with special people, from day one when I started at Carnoustie right across the waters over here.”
Applause, rare in the media center which offers sports’ figurative division of church and state, greeted Watson when he arrived about 30 minutes after he signed his scorecard. A standing ovation, even more unusual, accompanied his exit.
Watson had said he didn’t exactly know how he’d feel when he took that final walk over the Swilcan Bridge. Turns out, he didn’t feel alone as he thought about friends and family long since gone, like his caddy, Bruce Edwards, a victim of ALS.
“I looked up in the sky, and I said, I know there are a lot of other people watching me from not just right here … a lot of loved ones,” Watson said. “It was a special time.”
Anyone who was there will tell you. It was, indeed.