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Tom Watson
Tom Watson has enjoyed a year of good wishes from golf fans everywhere after his amazing display at Turnberry last summer. (Getty Images)

Year later, Watson's eager to challenge for Open title again

Tom Watson returns to St. Andrews with a few more lines etched into his face, but with competitive spirit as intense as ever. Can he reclaim the Claret Jug that he so narrowly missed last year? Why not, he says.

By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

Even now, almost a year to the day later, Tom Watson doesn’t get very far when he goes out in public without someone reminding him of what happened at Turnberry.

Granted, Watson missed the putt on the 72nd hole that would have made him, two months shy of his 60th birthday, the oldest winner of a major championship – or any other PGA TOUR event, for that matter. He completely ran out of steam in the playoff with Stewart Cink, too.

But Watson’s spirited bid to defy the odds -- and reverse the ages -- and win the 149th Open Championship at the age of 59 captured the imagination of both the Twilight generation and the salt-and-pepper crowd. Shoot, it even had his long-time rival and friend, Jack Nicklaus, the man he had beaten in that singular “Duel in the Sun” on the same course 32 years earlier, sending his first-ever text messages of encouragement into cyberspace.

“I would have to say that there's been a certain glow about the whole situation, even though I finished second,” Watson acknowledged. “And the glow comes from the people who watched it and who have come up to me and have commented to me about what they thought of it.

“There's been a couple of them that -- actually, more than a couple -- but a lot of them have said, you know, I'm not too old now. You've just proven to me that I'm just not too old.”

Watson tantalized and teased us, young and old alike, at this year’s Masters, too, where he opened with a 67 and hung in to tie for 18th. And so what if he needed the 10-shot lead to get to play the weekend at Pebble Beach? A third-round 70 vaulted him up the leaderboard and Watson tied for 28th.

Can he do it again this week at St. Andrews? Well, we can believe but only he can make miracles happen. 

Watson has won five Open Championships on some of the game’s most storied venues --  Carnoustie, Turnberry, Muirfield, Troon and Birkdale, to be exact -- but oddly his best finish at the home of golf is a tie for second in 1984. In fact, and almost inexplicably, that the only top-10 finish in six previous appearances at St. Andrews for Watson, his generation’s consummate links player. 

In recognition of his abiding affinity for the game, Watson, along with Arnold Palmer and Padraig Harrington, who have four Open titles between them, will receive an honorary degree from the University of St. Andrews on Tuesday evening. He’ll wear the cap and gown with pride but the thing Watson wants most is a shot at a record sixth Claret Jug.

And thanks to a new eligibility criteria adopted by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, this won’t necessarily be Watson’s Open Championship swan song as it had originally appeared. He may stop and savor the moment on the Swilcan Bridge, but it won’t have the same finality as it did in 2005 when  Nicklaus, then 65, waved goodbye from the same spot.

Watson’s runner-up finish at Turnberrry last year, coupled with Greg Norman’s turn-back-the-clock third place at Royal Birkdale in 2008, prompted the R&A to reconsider its rule that limited participation to past champs aged 60 or younger. Now, if you are a former winner who finishes in the top 10, you have five more years of eligibility.

That means Watson, should he so desire, can play until 2014 and as long as he feels competitive, look for him to be there on the first tee. Granted, he’s no Sam Snead, who won his 82nd and final tournament in Greensboro in 1965 at the age of 52 and made the cut in Westchester in 1979 at the age of 67 -- but Watson is nonetheless aging well. 

“I was always in awe of Sam,” Watson says. “He could play until he was 78 years old. He could play. And I don’t think that’s in the cards for me.”

Certain venues, though, suit certain players. Witness Corey Pavin at TPC River Highlands a few weeks ago. And the links game, where knowledge and cunning can negate the loss of power and length, suits Watson perhaps more than any other who has played the game.

So Watson returns to St. Andrews this week with a few more lines etched into his tanned, well-worn face. But that infectious Huck Finn grin, the one that drew us in like co-conspirators a year ago and softened the blow when he couldn’t pull off the win of -- and for -- the ages, has hardly changed.

“This ain’t a funeral, you know,” Watson had joked half-heartedly to break the dreadful silence as the media filed into the interview room that Sunday at Turnberry.

Should he have hit a 9-iron instead of the 8 that ran through the green? And was it the wind that blew the ball past the hole? Even with the benefit of perspective, Watson refuses to get caught up in the litany of what-ifs.
 “It would have been a hell of a story,” Watson acknowledged recently. “But Stewart Cink … did what he had to do. He birdied the last hole and he didn't miss a shot in the playoff. You have to give him all the credit.

“I just finished second.”

And turns out, even that was good enough for the rest of us.

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