Watson gets Open arms from R&A

CHIP ELLIS | Gazette
Tom Watson tells the story of how he accidentally bent his British Open trophy, the Claret Jug, with a golf club only to fix it in his shop. Mike Woodcock (left) and Malcolm Booth of the R&A listen in on Tuesday.

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — When the Open Championship was last contested in 2010 at St. Andrews, Tom Watson was saddened when he took his final walk over the small but historic Swilcan Bridge.

But thanks to a special action by the R&A, the pro emeritus at The Greenbrier can walk that stone structure at least twice more.

The R&A (long name Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews) has extended Watson’s five-year exemption another year. That not only allows Watson to play St. Andrews one more time, but he will celebrate his 40th anniversary of playing his first (British) Open.

R&A director Michael Tate announced the exemption, and presented a special players’ badge symbolizing Watson’s five Claret Jugs — commissioned by one of Queen Elizabeth’s jewelers in solid silver.

“Indeed, I was hoping you were going to do this,” Watson said in his usual humble manner.

The world of golf will gather to celebrate Watson’s outstanding career in the Open, which includes five championships — the first in his first appearance, 1975 at Carnoustie. He also won in 1977 at Turnberry, 1980 at Muirfield, 1982 at Royal Troon and 1983 at Royal Birkdale.

Perhaps his most amazing performance came in 2009 at Turnberry, when at age 59 he led by a stroke entering the tournament’s 72nd hole. He bogeyed that hole and lost in a playoff to Stewart Cink.

But that top-10 performance bought him a few more opens. Past champions age 60 or under are exempt into the Open, but a top-10 finish from a past champion guarantees five more years, allowing Watson to play through this Open at Hoylake.

The R&A was happy to give Watson, who will be 65 when the 2015 Open begins, one more chance.

“I hope my body is still in good shape, and I’ll be there if I have to drag myself there,” Watson said.

To reach Doug Smock, call 348-5130, e-mail to dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.

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