ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (AP) — Tom Watson knew the old guys were in his corner.
What caught him off guard was all the young folks who were inspired by his heartbreaking loss at last year's British Open.
"I hadn't had any kids come up to me for years. It was always kids coming up to me saying, 'My grandmother loves you,'" Watson said Wednesday with a chuckle. "But these kids came up and said, 'Hey, Mr. Watson, that was great last year at the British Open.' That's been a wonderful sidelight to what happened."
Imagine what it would have been like if the putt on the 72nd hole had dropped in the cup instead of bending off weakly at the end.
Eight feet. That's how close Watson was to becoming a champion for the ages.
A few months shy of his 60th birthday and poised to become the oldest major winner in golf history — no one else was even close — he nearly pulled it off. But an approach shot that went a little too far and a potential clinching par putt that never had a chance snuffed out the fairy-tale ending.
Watson finished regulation tied with Stewart Cink, who won the four-hole playoff in a rout. All Watson could do was watch as someone else claimed the claret jug, the cherished prize that everyone outside of Cink's immediate family was pulling for the 59-year-old to win.
What could have been perhaps "the greatest sporting achievement," in the words of three-time Open winner Nick Faldo, wound up being a cruel blow for one of golf's greatest champions. Watson won eight major titles, five of them at the Open, but this generation will remember him for the one that got away.
"This game delivered a scarring to him," Faldo said. "To get that close, to almost get your hands on it, was hard. Unbelievably hard."
Watson insists that he got over the disappointment in about 24 hours. But make no mistake, it sure hurt when he stood there on the 18th green at Turnberry, congratulating Cink on his first major title.
"The loss is hard to take," Watson said. "It tore my guts up. But my guts have been torn up before out here in this game."
He recalled bouncing back from a final-round collapse at the 1974 U.S. Open to win his first professional tournament a few weeks later. And coming back from another U.S. Open disappointment in '75 to capture his first major title at Carnoustie.
"There's kind of a bounce-back thing in me," said Watson, who won his last major title in 1983.
Most heartening, perhaps, has been the reaction of fans his own age.
"They come up to me and say, 'Tom, it was wonderful. I couldn't stop watching what happened last year,'" Watson said. "It's been a wonderful time talking with people who frankly said, 'You've given me hope that I can still do it at my age. I'm the same age as you, Tom. I'm 60 years old and I've given up on the game or given up on something else, and you've literally given me some hope and actually desire to keep at it,' whatever it takes to keep at it, because it's just that number.
"There have been some wonderful memories over the years, and this was a memory, I guess, in a positive sense, the way people responded to it. That's what I've taken from it."
Showing there were no hard feelings toward the guy who beat him, Watson eagerly accepted Cink's offer to play a practice round together at St. Andrews on Tuesday. They even paused for a picture together as they crossed over the famous Swilcan Bridge on the 18th hole.
"I don't feel sorry for him," Cink said. "He's got five claret jug titles and I only have one."
As for the state of his game, Watson said he's putting as well as ever but doesn't think his iron play is quite as sharp as it was at Turnberry. The heavy rains Wednesday also figure to hurt his chances, making it tougher to keep up with the longer hitters by bouncing the ball along rock-hard fairways.
Then again, Watson turned in respectable showings at the first two majors of the year — 18th at the Masters, 29th at the U.S. Open — so it's obvious he's still got game.
"It's no different than what it was," he said, "except I've got an artificial hip. I'm a little stiffer and I don't hit the ball as far. I do have a little more experience under my belt."
Even though the stars aligned (almost) perfectly a year ago, Watson knows better than anyone that he's unlikely to stand over another potential winning putt at the British Open.
"I wouldn't say that he won't have a shot," Arnold Palmer said. "I would say that it's not very likely, simply because of his age and the fact that he has done so well. It will have some psychological effect on him that he may relax a little bit and enjoy it."
When a group of 26 past winners gathered for dinner Tuesday night, Watson mentioned that this will probably be his last Open at St. Andrews. His exemption runs out in 2014, the year before the tournament returns to the birthplace of golf, so he'll likely pause a little longer than usual the last time he crosses the Swilcan Bridge.
"That tells me something, that Tom is probably ready to hit the ranks of the older players on the Tour," Palmer said. "And that's probably the right thing."
For now, Julius Boros remains the oldest winner in one of golf's biggest events, capturing the 1968 PGA Championship at age 48.
But the old-timers keep knocking on the door, whether it was Watson at Turnberry, or 48-year-old Kenny Perry losing in a playoff at the 2009 Masters, or 53-year-old Greg Norman holding the 54-hole lead at the '08 British Open at Royal Birkdale.
"I hope the trend continues," Watson said. "God, I hope a 60-year-old guy can do it. That would be pretty cool."