Watching golfer Tom Watson narrowly lose the British Open on Sunday, I was reminded of another narrow contest, back in 1977. It's an anecdote about Watson and Turnberry — and caddies.
Almost a decade after Watson beat Jack Nicklaus in that famous 1977 British Open, also at Turnberry, Scotland, I did a retrospective piece for Sports Illustrated. The responses of the two golfers were fascinating.
Nicklaus simply didn't want to talk about it. "I couldn't even take you around that course," he snapped. No, Jack Nicklaus had lost at Turnberry and wanted to forget it.
Watson, on the other hand, had no trouble remembering it all. Keep in mind, now: It was nine years later, but twice tears came to his eyes merely in talking again about that magnificent victory.
Then I hunted down one other important person, and, at Turnberry — or "Tonbree," which is more how they say it over there — we walked the course together. His name was Alfie Fyles. He was Watson's British caddy. Nicklaus had brought his regular caddie over from the States.
Alfie had first had Watson's bag two years before, at Carnoustie, when Watson had won his first Grand Slam championship. Caddying in Britain was much more of a profession then. Men like Alfie did it for a life's work. They spoke in that Cockney argot, where you use code rhymes for key words. A "Vera Lynn" meant a shot of gin, for instance; "sizzle and strife" was your missus.
After Carnoustie, Alfie threw the Gregory Peck — the check — that Watson gave him on the floor, insulted by how small he thought it was. Caddies like Alfie believed that they could truly improve their golfers. But even then the craft was dying out. "All you got left is bag-carriers," Alfie groused. "All they can do is give a golfer a weather report, not the right club."
So it was that, on the 72nd hole, with a one-stroke lead over Nicklaus, Watson faced a second shot of about 180 yards. Alfie fingered a 7-iron. Watson stared at him. "You know I can only carry 160/165 with a 6," he said. A 7-iron is even less club. "Ah," said Alfie, "but the way your adrenalin's pumpin', Tom."
Watson took the 7 and hit it 30 inches from the cup, sank the putt and beat Nicklaus by a stroke.
So, on Sunday, as I watched on television, here came Watson down the final fairway at Turnberry ... one up, exactly like back in '77. His tee shot was straight. I couldn't tell how far away he was, but I remembered Alfie. I knew Tom's adrenalin was pumpin' again. To myself, I thought: Whatever club you'd normally use, go one less. He hit a beautiful shot, straight at the flag — only it was too strong, and it went over the back of the green. And he bogeyed and lost the lead and then the tournament.
Almost the first thing Watson said afterward was that he'd used an 8-iron for that second shot on 18. Yeah, he'd considered a 9, but an 8 was normally right for the distance.
I thought of old Alfie again, and what an irony: Tom Watson didn't lose the British Open because he's 59 years old. He lost because he's 59 years old, but playing like the 26-year-old he was back in 1977 — only he didn't have that old-fashioned caddie to remind him how good and strong he was again.