By Michael Hann
LONDON (Reuters) - When Tom Watson walks across the famous Swilcan Bridge at St Andrews for the final time, pausing for photographs to rapturous applause, the American's love affair with the British Open will come to a fitting end. The 65-year-old has been given an exemption to play at the spiritual home of golf next week to mark the 40th anniversary of his first appearance and his five victories in the championship. Watson, an eight-times major winner, dominated the British Open between 1975 and 1983, and the 1977 'Duel in the Sun' triumph over Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry is probably his most revered success. Under clear skies on the Ailsa Course the two Americans were tied at the top of the leaderboard with three holes to play.
"This is what it's all about, isn't it?", Watson said on the next tee. "You bet it is," Nicklaus replied.
A birdie at the 17th put Watson in front for the first time and at the last he hit a seven-iron to two feet.
Nicklaus drove into the rough but smashed an eight-iron to the edge of the green and dramatically holed from 35 feet. Now Watson's putt looked a bit longer but he tapped in for victory.
The pair left the green arm-in-arm. Rarely had two players produced such a high quality of golf amid so much drama.
WATERSHED MOMENT "This was a watershed moment in my life, winning the Open at Turnberry early in my career against the best player in the game," Watson told Today's Golfer magazine. "Jack said, 'Tom, I gave you my best shot but it wasn’t good enough. Congratulations'. "When he said that it made me realize I could play and compete against the best in the game. I felt I had arrived as a professional."
Twice U.S. Open champion Andy North is hoping Watson's farewell ends with the flourish it deserves. "He’s had disappointments at St Andrews but he’d love to go out walking across the bridge on Sunday rather than Friday," said North, now an ESPN golf analyst.
"He's had such a history in Scotland that he'd love to play well and be able to play four rounds and be somewhere near contention."
Watson was certainly in contention at the age of 59 when he rolled back the years at Turnberry in 2009 and stirred the golf world by going agonizingly close to becoming the oldest major champion before being pipped by compatriot Stewart Cink in a playoff. His return to Scotland as U.S. Ryder Cup captain in 2014 was far from happy as Phil Mickelson launched an attack on his stewardship after the U.S. went down 16-1/2 - 11-1/2, saying Watson had not engaged with his players.
Mickelson, though, has put their differences aside ahead of the Open. "He is one of the greatest champions this game has ever had," he told reporters at the Scottish Open this week. "It's his last Open championship and I’m certainly appreciative of all he has done for the game of golf."
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)