Watson’s second Eureka moment came during a buddies’ trip in 1981 organised by Sandy Tatum, former president of the United States Golf Association. They played Ballybunion in Ireland then flew over to Scotland to Prestwick, Royal Troon and Royal Dornoch. More pennies dropped. Watson bagged three more Opens in the 1980s. “I love links now, but you can never truly understand it,” he says. Which is why Jack Nicklaus used to turn up early at St Andrews to play practice rounds with Walter Wood, its celebrated head greenkeeper. Nicklaus won in 1970 and 1978 at the Old Course. God is in the detail.
As a Nicklaus boffin and a student obsessed with gaining the edge over his rivals, Woods (champion in 2000, 2005 and 2006) embarked on his own buddy trips to Ireland to acclimatise to links golf in the late 1990s. His playing companions were Mark O’Meara (1998 winner), David Duval (2001 winner), and the late and sorely missed Payne Stewart.
Woods may not know much about the real world, but he speaks the truth about why Americans excel at The Open. “It’s just one of those weird things,” he says. “But, then again, a lot of Europeans don’t play links golf or grow up on links golf. There are a lot of parkland courses now. This generation is different from Sandy Lyle, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo. They played more links golf. How many tournaments do Europeans have on links courses besides The Open?” The Dutch Open, the Dunhill Links (at St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns) and sometimes the Irish Open, he is told. “So not that many,” Woods says, resting his case.
Reigning champion Golfer of the Year, Cink, is humble enough to admit that, like Watson, The Open was the Major he was least likely to win due to his American style of playing. Yet still he prevailed because, like many of the great champions, he did his homework. The week before Turnberry, he was honing his game at Doonbeg, Lahinch and Ballybunion. Not surprisingly, Cink has a similar plan to defend his title. So, while Phil Mickelson and many of the world’s elite players will be warming up for the ultimate links challenge by playing target golf on the soft parkland greens of Loch Lomond, Cink will he battling to knock 4-irons under the wind on fast-running links courses around Dublin. Smart dude.
As for St Andrews, strange things happen there. It’s a history maker. Woods won the Millennium Open and then won again as Nicklaus bowed out in 2005. It felt like the changing of the guard. Woods now represents the old guard and St Andrews is ready to herald the arrival of the new generation of 20-year-olds storming the game. Rory McIlroy (aged 21 and a bit) senses it, too. The Americans have a challenger from Holywood, Northern Ireland. McIlroy has never shot worse than 69 at the Old Course. “I’ve played it about 25 times and I find it easy,” says McIlroy. “Winning The Open is a huge goal and I have always said that if I was to play in it at St Andrews I would do well.”
He doesn’t want to do it the easy way, either. The stars are aligned for a perfect storm as Woods goes for three in a row and McIlroy takes a tilt at his first Open title. “Me and Tiger in the last group on Sunday would be good,” he says “I wouldn’t mind that at all. I love that course. The Open is going to be massive.”
I think McIlroy just licked his lips.