Open Championship 2018: Tom Watson recalls Carnoustie win - and hating links golf

Tom Watson and caddie at the 1975 Open
Watson won his first Open in an 18-hole play-off - the last in Open history. "Not too many people were walking round with us and they were in the process of tearing down the stands as we were playing," he recalls

Carnoustie, the home of this year's Open Championship, was the course where Tom Watson took his first steps towards golfing greatness.

But despite his maiden major victory there in 1975, there was no instant love affair with British seaside golf. Indeed, the American - now synonymous the links game - had zero empathy with the unique demands of the purest form of the sport.

"I didn't like the way you had to play short," the five-time Open champion told BBC Sport on a recent visit to Carnoustie.

"I played golf the American way - I hit the ball high through the air and I expected the ball to stop. On links golf courses it didn't stop; I had to go back to my childhood and play the roll.

"When you play the roll and these bad bounces come about you have to learn how to deal with them."

This is the second of three weeks of links action following Russell Knox's sensational play-off win over Ryan Fox in the Irish Open at a glorious Ballyliffin. Next is the Scottish Open at Gullane before the Open at Carnoustie, the toughest course on the rota, which starts on 19 July.

Watson's distaste for this form of the game was instant. Arriving in Scotland for the first time in 1975 he sought a practice round with fellow Americans John Mahaffey and Hubert Green, who sadly passed away last month.

This trio of young Americans were met in the car park by the R&A's then secretary Keith McKenzie, who told them Carnoustie was reserved for the qualifiers and they would have to play elsewhere.

"So that put a dampener on proceedings at the beginning, but he set us up at Monifieth Golf Club," Watson recalled.

"When I played Monifieth, the first tee shot I hit a drive right down the middle of the fairway and lost the ball. It hit a side slope and bounded off somewhere way off line."

It was an inauspicious start to what proved a glorious week for a player who had won the Byron Nelson Classic and challenged in a couple of US Opens prior to his first crack at the oldest and most revered of the major championships.

"My expectations were all based on reputation," Watson said. "I'd heard that Carnoustie was the most difficult course in the rotation, it was really a bear cat.

"My game improved steadily as the week went on and as things worked out I ended up the champion and it was somewhat unexpected, I have to admit."

In those days the Open finished on a Saturday but an extra day was required after Watson tied with Australia's Jack Newton, thanks to a 20-foot birdie putt at the last which saw them both finish at nine under par.

In what proved the last 18 hole play-off in Open history, Watson edged a thriller when Newton bogeyed the final hole to lose by a shot.

"There was no time when either one of us was more than a stroke ahead or behind so it was a really tight match all the way round," the now 68-year-old Watson said.

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"At the last hole we were tied, I hit it on the green and two putted. Jack hit it in the bunker, hit a good shot out to eight or 10 feet and then just missed the putt and I won.

"That day it was kind of a rainy day, not too many people were walking round with us and they were in the process of tearing down the stands as we were playing."

Watson went on to win his second Open two years later, prevailing in the 'Duel in the Sun' against Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry. But it wasn't until 1981 and a golf trip with then USGA president Sandy Tatum that he fully appreciated the true magic of the links.

"We went to Ireland first and played Ballybunion, which I fell in love from the beginning, and we played Troon and Prestwick back to back," Watson said.

"Then we went up to play Royal Dornoch and, man, I just love that course. We went out and played in driving rain - just four of us, me and Sandy and the two caddies.

"That's when I had the epiphany - this is the way golf should be played. If you hit the ball solidly you can hit the ball the right distance and that's the key, get it flag high if you can and put it where you must put it."

And those are the principles that served Knox and Fox so well last week - and it will remain the case at Gullane and then the Open.

Watson will be a fascinated spectator, convinced that we are in a golden golfing era. "It's great for the game that there are so many young players at the top of the game," said the man who had a putt to win at Turnberry in 2009 when he was aged 59.

"Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson and add to the mix the old guys, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, and the game is in great, great stead right now. There's no better way to attract young people to the game than having young stars at the top."

And the eight-time major champion is convinced that if the weather co-operates, Carnoustie can offer another stern examination for an event he regards as 'The World Open' because of its international appeal.

"If you have wind it is going to be a tough test," he said. "If you don't have wind you are going to see some low scores.

"Carnoustie is a very difficult driving golf course. The bunkers are very much in play and you have to be careful.

"And there are greens that really are treacherous so you have to be careful with the shots you hit into these greens even with short irons. There are flag positions where you can make a bogey very, very quickly if you don't hit it where you should."

Such are the vagaries of links play, as the world's best are finding out during this glorious three-week spell in the golf schedule. And Watson is living proof that they don't necessarily have to like it to prosper.