When Tom Watson lifted the Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale it was his fifth Open title, the first he had won in England and, at the age of 33, the promise was of more to come. For his local caddie, Alfie Fyles, it was the sixth time he had been on the winner’s bag since he carried for Gary Player at Carnoustie in 1968, earning his first major payday in an irregular line of work.
Watson became known to the British golfing public in 1975 when, on his first Open appearance, he also won at Carnoustie with Fyles on his bag, having been hired only at the start of that week. It was the start of a remarkable liaison in Europe that was to last more than 10 years.
Fyles liked a beer and a bet and always wore a check cap, and he used to speak of his days out on the course without too much prompting. His career had seen him work on both sides of the Atlantic, caddie for Gay Brewer and Kel Nagle among others, become the caddie master at Walton Heath in Surrey and appear with Watson in several episodes of Around with Allis.
In that Open week in 1983 he brought a few souvenir T-shirts that had come his way along to our local pub after one of the practice days. Each was white with a huge golf ball printed on the left breast and “Birkdale Open 1983” written below it. On closer inspection you could just make out the head of Pope John Paul II beneath the ball, leftover and modified stock from the papal visit to Liverpool in 1982.
I dropped into the bar on my way to the course on the Saturday of the Open and was surprised to see Fyles enjoying a couple of settlers and awaiting his rendezvous with Watson and wife Linda outside their favourite fish and chip restaurant to share a cab to the course. He said he had been up since first light when it was his task to walk the course with the R&A and chart the spots, for all the caddies, where the holes had been cut for that day.
Watson was right in contention and started that round at seven under and trailing Craig Stadler by a shot, and was out in the second-last pairing with the popular pre-rebuild Nick Faldo. Fyles’s presence and Watson’s Open record saw them hugely appreciated too.
Faldo and Watson, and the Stadler and Lee Trevino match in the final pairing, got most of the attention, with the BBC radio commentator Don Mosey and his soundman flitting between the two in a green open-topped vehicle.
Watson shot 70 to Faldo’s 71 and made it into the lead and the last pairing for Sunday at eight under, with Stadler a shot behind. During a shaky start to the final round news filtered through that Australia’s Graham Marsh was posting a seven-under 64 to take the clubhouse lead at seven under.
I was following Watson and Stadler. At the 16th Watson, who had made birdie at the 11th and 13th, struck a magnificent second from light rough to the centre of the green and made a 15-foot putt back to reach nine under after Hale Irwin and Andy Bean had signed for 67s apiece and eight under.
Watson missed his birdie at the 17th and thus, needing a par four at the last, found the middle of the fairway. After emerging from the melee of spectators that flooded the fairway as soon as both players had hit their second shots, he found that his drilled two iron had covered most of the 213 yards required and finished about 15 feet from the hole. He had two putts to win, used them both, and after the formalities he got to hold the Claret Jug aloft for the fifth and final time in nine years.
A few days later a black-and-white framed portrait photograph of a smiling golfer and caddie cradling the Claret Jug turned up at the Masons Arms in Southport signed by Watson and with the words “To Alf, a moment to always remember” written in the top corner. Indeed it was.