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Instead of fighting links golf, Tom Watson succeeded when he played it the way it is supposed to be played. (Phil Inglis/Getty Images) 
Instead of fighting links golf, Tom Watson succeeded when he played it the way it is supposed to be played. (Phil Inglis/Getty Images) 

Watson went back to future to learn to love the links

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A big part of Tom Watson's Hall of Fame career are his five Open Championship victories, but a key one at Carnoustie stands out. That's where he had to harken back to his youth in order to appreciate the unique demands of links golf.

By Lauren Deason, PGATOUR.com Editorial Coordinator

It's hard to believe now, but Tom Watson didn't particularly care for links courses at the start of his career.

Knowing what we now do about Watson -- the man who won five Open Championship titles during his World Golf Hall of Fame career -- this statement seems preposterous. How could anyone win on some of Europe's most famous links venues when he didn't think his game was suited for them?

"I went over (to Carnoustie in 1975) really new at playing links golf and I played practice rounds that made me not like it very much," Watson explained. "I didn't particularly care for that type of golf. The luck of the bounce, I thought, played too much importance in the outcome of the tournament but actually it took me about four or five years to turn around my thinking on links golf."

Even though he says he struggled to adapt to the new style of golf -- which took him "back to his childhood, where you couldn't fly the ball on the green but instead had to roll the ball on the green" -- Watson was no Jean Van de Velde in his first foray at Carnoustie. Far from it actually, as Watson got lucky twice on the 18th hole to earn his first Open Championship win there in 1975.

After minimal breezes over the first three rounds, Saturday's finale brought winds from a different direction and caused a shift in the leaderboard as the scores jumped higher. Jack Nicklaus shot even par on the blustery day, setting the bar at 280 for those behind him. Watson and Johnny Miller took the bait and began attacking the course, but it wasn't meant to be for Miller as he found a bunker on the 72nd hole, making bogey to shoot 280 as well.

Watson, on the other hand, made a perfect birdie to shoot even par for the day and hold the clubhouse lead at 279. With just Jack Newton and Bobby Cole left to challenge him, it looked like Watson might take his first British Open in regulation when the pair's nerves caused them to drop a few shots coming in. On the final hole, Cole missed a birdie chance that would have put him into a playoff with Watson, but Newton sank a clutch par putt to tie Watson's score and put them into a playoff.

"We ended up playing an 18-hole playoff on Sunday -- they finished on Saturday in those days -- and I won by a shot on the very last hole," Watson recalled. "We were tied going into the last hole and he made bogey and I made par and that was the tournament."

It wasn't quite that simple, with Watson losing the two-shot lead he built up at the start of the round and needing an eagle on the 14th to take command again. On the final hole, Watson two-putted for par while Newton's 10-foot par effort slid just to the left of the hole, giving Watson a surprising rookie win.

"Instead of trying to fight (links golf), I had to go with it," he said. "Play the luck of the bounce, play it along the ground, play the game the way it's supposed to be played."

Watson's not the only legend to win at Carnoustie's challenging layout, with Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Tommy Armour, among others, also earning Open Championship victories there. In the 2007 edition, Watson expects another famous name to be added to the list.

"This year, I have to go with Tiger Woods," he said. "He's the best in the world. He'll find some way to get it done there. After Paul Lawrie won in 1999, the golf course was extremely difficult because the height of the rough and narrowness of the fairways. This year won't be as severe as it was when it was played then."

But don't expect Watson to be in east Scotland to see Tiger et al. tee it up for the 136th Open Championship. No, he has a much happier place to be than what some called "Car-nasty" in 1999, a layout that famously drove then-19-year-old Sergio Garcia to tears and into his mother's arms after two brutal rounds.

"My daughter's getting married that week," said Watson. "I'll walk her down the aisle on Saturday instead of being at Carnoustie."

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