Neil Oxman is far from your ordinary tour caddie and so you would not expect him to share a tiny room in a house on the back road to Turnberry during Open week. It is not that he wouldn't, for he has considered himself a caddie first these last 35 years and that's what caddies do. It's just that, well, he doesn't have to. His "other" job as a political consultant allows him to travel in style.
And so he stayed instead for the week of the 2009 Open in the venerable but plush old Marine Hotel overlooking Royal Troon golf club, about 30 miles up the coast from Turnberry. He was on the second floor, ironically right across the hall from another Tom Watson suite, this one named in honor of the man who had won the Open next door at Troon in 1982.
It was comfortable but left Oxman a sturdy drive each morning down the A78, circling Prestwick where the first dozen Opens were held, and then offering the choice of the A79, the coast road, through Maidens and into Turnberry from the right, or down A77 through Minishant and Kirkoswald to approach Turnberry from the left. He took the main road just once, on Thursday, and chose the Coast Road the rest of the tournament, leaving every morning at 4:30. The dawning light was dim and the ghostly outlines of rambling hills and large forlorn castles kept him company along the way.
Either way, Oxman made certain he left himself plenty of time. Though one of the most erudite of caddies, he never lost track of the old axiom "Show up, keep up and shut up". Chances are good he overdid the first two but let the final adage slide a bit. He and Watson not only walked fairways for a living but shared their lives, e-mailing and texting often during off days about everything under the sun.
It was overcast and threatening rain, however, when Neil Oxman arrived at Turnberry on Sunday morning, a good five hours ahead of the final tee time of the 138th Open Championship. Watson and Matthew Goggin were slated to go out together at 2:20 that afternoon, 9:20 on the American east coast.
"I did all the things I had to do," recalls Oxman of that morning. "Cleaning grips and getting yardage, all my stuff, and still had tons of time.
"There were a couple easy chairs in the corner of the locker room and when I was finished, I sat down in one of them and fell dead asleep."
It had been a long and emotional week and Neil Oxman was clearly exhausted with at least another ten hours of tremendous exhilaration to go. If he dreamed that morning, he doesn't remember.
"All of a sudden," he says, "I felt someone tapping my foot. Tom had quietly come in and was waking me up, not to go to work, necessarily, but just to talk. He sat down in the other easy chair."
"Ox," said Watson, "I feel a little more nervous today."
"I told him he deserved that," remembers Oxman, "but I also said to him 'you know, for a lotta people, what you are doing is life-affirming.' I took it from a story about when Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote 'Singing in the Rain', showed Leonard Bernstein that famous scene with Gene Kelly. Bernstein said to them 'That scene is an affirmation of life'. What Tom was doing was an affirmation.
"I said to him 'hey, you're not obsessed with tying Harry Vardon, you're not into any of that other stuff. It's those other guys who should be nervous. What you are doing is re-defining yourself. What they're doing is life-altering. Huge difference and that should make them more nervous."
"That was a special moment," Watson recalls. "He was into how he felt. I was just thinking about winning a golf tournament. I was putting a game plan into place. If I can make three birdies and three bogeys, I will win the tournament. That was my game plan. I came pretty close to that in the third round. (In fact, he had four bogies and three birdies on Saturday.) Now it was time to do it in the final 18."**************
The world began to gather as this inspirational journey was about to reach its mountaintop. Jack Nicklaus sat in front of his television set with his family in Florida and prepared to do something he had never once done in his entire life.
"I had never watched a complete round of golf on TV," the greatest golfer of all time said later. "But I couldn't miss this."***************
Nick Price, who captured the 1994 Open Championship on these same Turnberry grounds, invited a few of his old golfing pals from the club near where he lives in Florida, mixed up several potent batches of Bloody Mary's (Remember the five-hour time difference between Turnberry and the American east coast. It was Breakfast with Tom in America.) and prepared to take his buddies on a tour of Turnberry.
"They just figured I could offer some insight," Price said, although the layout had been significantly changed in the 15 years since his victory there. "So we watched together."****************
Lee Trevino, who won back-to-back Open Championships in 1971 and 1972, parked himself alone on his living room couch and prepared to be inspired. He had finished a distant fourth at Turnberry in 1977, watching Watson and Nicklaus go off on their Dual in the Sun together, leaving him and the rest of the field in their dust.
"I don't watch much golf these days," he says, "only the four majors. They make a guy's career. If someone doesn't win a major, he's not a great player.
"I was trying to read Tommy's mind. I didn't think anyone was gonna shake him because the nerves were on the other foot. All he was saying was, hey, these guys are sweating this out, they can't let an old guy beat them. He knew that, he's smart, he's a Stanford graduate. I know he also might have been thinking the wheels are gonna fall off but if they do, so be it. I gave it a helluva run."****************
Jeffrey Kavanaugh, who joined Watson for the Tuesday practice round after betting on Watson, had predictably missed the cut but wasn't about to miss this final day. He walked outside the ropes with the rest of the thousands who were ready to lift Tom Watson on their Scottish shoulders that Sunday afternoon.****************
The old caddie who had put ten pounds on Watson down the road at the betting parlor in Gervin earlier in the week, had late Sunday afternoon off. His man had played just good enough on Friday to make the weekend but had fallen prey to the Saturday winds and so had an early tee time Sunday morning. The caddie finished their round, took care of his man's clubs, did their usual business, and then hurried back out onto the course to watch history (and several thousand pounds of winning bet) be made. If he rubbed shoulders that afternoon with Jeffrey Kavanaugh, he didn't know it.
In the media center, Associated Press golf writer Doug Ferguson was rehearsing.
"At every major, I spend an hour or so the morning of the final round putting together a crib sheet for various possibilities, usually 4-5 names of contenders," he recalls. "Sunday at Turnberry was no different. I started with Tom Watson and took a deep breath.
"I went eight names deep. Cink in the 7th spot. (Angel Cabrera was last).
"When I started writing game stories at majors a decade ago, I sometimes would try to come up with a lead that I could rely on in case I froze on deadline. This would have been one of those 'freeze' moments because the story would have been bigger than anything I had covered. I kept thinking about it before lunch, after lunch, as Tom headed for the first tee. I don't mind telling you, I was nervous. This was a big, big, big story and as a writer, you don't want to blow it. To say you'd only get one crack at a story like this is an understatement."
The veteran writer, whose work appeared in over 1,500 newspapers around the world, didn't believe Watson could win.
"Nevertheless, I was cranking out numbers and scenarios and his section of notes was far longer than those of anyone else. Each detail made it all the more absurd-longest gap between first and last major (34 years)--or the idea that he would go from No. 1,374 in the world to inside the Top 50 just ahead of Davis Love III. Each one was an example of how this drama was really more like fiction. Stashed that thought away, too."********************
Jeff Babineau, vice president, editor and columnist of Golfweek magazine, had a different assignment than Ferguson because of varying degrees of deadline. Still, the task ahead loomed just as large.
"With Watson going for No. 6," says Babineau, "and being nearly 60, he was going to be a big part of our magazine lead AND our lead column regardless of the outcome. Our average reader is 50-plus, and a lot of them have followed Watson for many years. The other element/factor reminded me of Van de Velde in '99-it's so big and is such a huge part of the overall story of the week, you really can't write too much of it, in our opinion. Did people leave Carnoustie in '99 talking about Paul Lawrie? Not a single one. This was a similar day, where Watson, win or lose, would carry the tournament.
"That's why I was going to walk the whole way with Watson. I knew if someone else won, that part of the story would be covered by our lead writer and I just wanted to keep an eye on Watson on what could be a truly historical day in sports."*************
Brendan Gallagher of The Telegraph was having trouble deciding where this would all rank not just in golf history but universal annals.
"You couldn't move over the weekend," he wrote, "without being reminded that it was exactly 40 years ago that Neil Armstrong stood on the moon and frankly Watson's assault on the Open Championship just two months shy of his 60th birthday had the same feel of venturing into unknown and slightly mystical territory". **************
The long-time voice of golf on the BBC, Peter Alliss, was preparing his thoughts for what might be the most important round of golf he had ever called.
"I've had the privilege and pleasure of watching Watson throughout his career," Alliss says. "He was always fun to watch because he was brisk and busy and competent, always with a half-smile on his face and a kindly word for one and all. That's a persona hard to keep up for thirty years or more."
Alliss was the lead basso profundo in one of the most unusual and crowded sets in all of TV sports. Several years before, the BBC had created a rolling TV studio along the lines of a sleek, bay-windowed mobile home that was parked alongside the 18th fairway. The set held as many as six commentators at once, but there is also a production studio and edit suite that, hooked up to a truck, simply moves from event to event.
One would think Alliss, however, would seem more comfortable in a waffled old booth with enormous headphones and a lip mic than in this modern setting. Inching his way gracefully toward 80, perhaps he saw in Tom Watson his own golfing heritage as he looked back on Turnberry.
"Rounds one, two and three passed and, dammit, he was still near the top of the leaderboard," the former English Ryder Cupper recalls. "In the commentary box, we speculated as to whether he could do it. Would it be a good thing if he did win? But this was all speculation for it surely couldn't happen."**************
On Sunday afternoon at 9:20 a.m. Eastern time, 2:20 local, Old Tom Watson stood on the first tee, dressed in a black golf shirt, a powder blue v-neck sweater with the Polo insignia on the left breast, black slacks and black golf shoes. His black baseball cap had "Adams golf" stitched across the forehead, a relationship that goes back a decade. It appeared to be, in fact, the same cap he wore the three previous rounds.