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Tom Watson has grown to love links golf. (Martin/Getty Images)

Watson's back at Birkdale, with lots on his mind

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Tom Watson, who won here in 1983, looks back, looks ahead and looks around for someone to step up this week.

By Melanie Hauser, Contributor

SOUTHPORT, England - You want the truth?

There was a time when Tom Watson didn't like links golf. Detested? Nah. More like disliked. Intensely.

Yes, that Tom Watson. The gap-toothed one who won five Claret Jugs, embraced links golf with a passion and looked better in the traditional Ben Hogan-style cap and a jumper than most Scots. And, oh, he probably should have won six. We refer you to St. Andrews in 1984, when his heroic 2-iron at the Old Course turned tragic, as in over the green, against the wall, Jug to Seve Ballesteros.

But we digress. We weren't teasing you about Watson hating links. And the reason? Elementary, if you'll pardon the pun.

Watson, you see, lost the first shot he ever hit on a links course. It was at Monifieth in 1975 in a practice round for the Open at Carnoustie. Honest. Those were the days when exempt players couldn't play the course the Sunday prior to the round, so he was playing with John Mahaffey and Hubert Green. He stepped up to the first tee and hit it right down the middle of fairway.

"And we never found it," he said.

So, he dropped, hit another shot to the green and took a stroll.

"I walked over to a little pot bunker about 30 or 40 yards away and there it was," he said. "I remember thinking, 'I don't like this.'"

But seven days later, he won that Open Championship. Added another one two years later at Turnberry.

And he still didn't like links golf.

It took him slapping himself around a bit at Royal Lytham in 1979, in fact, to change his mind and embrace, with a passion, the people and the grand auld game the way the Scots played it.

"I didn't play that well and was complaining to myself about the course, saying it's not a very good course and making excuses," he said. "Then I told myself if you're not playing well, blame it on yourself, not the golf course. Just play it and take what it gives you."

He started running the ball up and stopped hitting high shots and, well, the rest is history, as in three more Jugs.

Watson tees it up this week at Birkdale, site of his last Open Championship in 1983. He'll turn 59 in September and he's on countdown now. He'll play here, then Turnberry, then finish up his competitive Open career at St. Andrews in 2010 just a few months before he turns 60, when he loses his exemption.

"I commend the decision," he said of the R&A's choice of age 60. "There are places that you have to have for the players that can really play and for the youngsters. I know that it didn't matter to me whether the older players played if they could still compete. But if they couldn't compete, I think they should have voluntarily moved over and not played in the tournament to let the younger players who can compete get in the tournament."

Despite the fact that he overslept his interview session Monday morning, Watson still fits into the can-play category. He tied for 18th at St. George's in 2003, tied for 41st at St. Andrews in 2005 and tied for 48th at Royal Liverpool in 2006.

"We got in this morning and unpacked and hit the bed and three hours later woke up," he said, apologizing for being late. "At my age, you need naps."

He laughed.

Watson comes alive when he steps onto a links now. In addition to those five Opens, he's won three Senior British Opens and will defend his 2007 title next week at Royal Troon. But, no, links don't turn back the time.

"Nothing will make you feel young again, especially seeing kids out there playing who weren't even born when you won the championship here," he said. "But that's the beauty of the game; you can still play late in your competitive life.

"I feel as if I could compete here. I have played half decently in the Open Championships the last few years, better than I can at the Masters," he added. "Augusta is really, the way they've designed that course has taken me out of the loop there. I'd have to be more than perfect to compete there, and then I still couldn't compete."

He comes into Birkdale having won twice already this year on the Champions Tour. Couple that with the way fans over here respect and adore him, and, well, don't be surprised to see his name on the leaderboard. And his thoughts on everything from Tiger Woods to the Ryder Cup in tabloids and newspapers this week.

He started off Monday with what he needed to change with the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

"Well, something has got to change for the Americans to compete, and that is our players have to be in better shape, better form when the Ryder Cup comes along," Watson said. "And they haven't been in good form. I think if you look at the quality of players we have had in the Ryder Cup, from Tiger on down, Tiger hasn't won a lot and Phil (Mickelson) hasn't won very much at all.

"Those are two pretty good players. Then you add the rest of the mix to it, you know, you need an inspiration. And our team hasn't had that inspiration. They've had very few inspirations, frankly, in the last 20 years."

And then, when talking about Europe's Justin Rose and the progression of his game in the last decade, he turned his thoughts to Tiger.

"(Rose) just needs to get into competition and win more," Watson said. "That's the thing about Tiger; Tiger really kind of suppresses that in everybody because he wins so much. You're winning the important tournaments and you're in contention and you don't win, you can't learn how to win when Tiger is winning. You can learn how to finish second.

"Winning is hard to do with Tiger around," he admitted. 'What's he done, won 30 percent of the major championships he's played in? That's pretty good. That's pretty good."

With Tiger sidelined following knee surgery, he said it's time for other players, maybe an Anthony Kim, to step up and see who's got it.

Watson was the man here in 1983 when he hit an iconic 2-iron to the 18th hole to beat Andy Bean and Hale Irwin by a shot. It's on everyone's list of greatest Open shots and everyone's minds at Birkdale.

And Watson? He calls it the greatest moment at the time, and reminds us he never saw it land.

"The crowd just collapsed. I never saw the ball hit the ground, but I knew it was coming down right at the flagstick," he said. "My caddie said, 'Quit hooking,' and I said, 'The wind will bring it back, left to right into my face.'" It came right back at the flag. Took me a while to find out how close it was, but when I got up there, I said I think I can get it down in two."

Watson swears he hasn't given the magnitude of winning five Open Championships a second thought. He's tied with Peter Thomson, one behind Harry Vardon's record of six. Willie Park, Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, each have four.

"I kind of live in the now and not in the past or in the future, and it's nice to reflect back on it," he said. "It's wonderful to have some good memories from it, and I can't remember half of them, that's the problem."

Yes, he was laughing.

And pondering a practice round. And another week of links golf.

Not another nap.

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