In the days following Tom Watson’s surprising runner-up finish at the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry in Scotland, all anyone wanted to know was how a 59-year-old guy less than a year removed from left hip replacement surgery could compete against “the kids,” as Watson calls today’s PGA Tour players. The answer, according to the man himself, is simple: he stays competitive by doing just that. “Staying competitive is the most important thing, and the second thing is keeping in good shape,” Watson says. “I give a lot of credit to my mom and dad for giving me good genes. But being able to play on the Champions Tour, and to stay competitive playing against the kids at The Masters and the British Open has certainly helped.”

Listening to Watson speak about golf, it’s obvious that he will never be the kind of athlete who gets burnt out on his sport. After 39 victories on the PGA Tour and 12 more on the Champions Tour, the Kansas City, Missouri, native still relishes the simple challenges of the game. “The passion I have for the game is simple: I still enjoy hitting the shot when it counts and succeeding in hitting the shot when it counts,” says the author of eight Major championships on the PGA Tour, and five more on the Champions Tour. “That is still my goal as a golfer, to put myself in the position where it means something and pulling it off.”

One of those defining moments came at Pebble Beach, during the final round of the 1982 U.S. Open, which Watson won by two shots over Jack Nicklaus. His dramatic chip-in on the 17th hole, and subsequent run across the green while pointing back at longtime caddie Bruce Edwards, is one of the sport’s enduring images. A 1971 graduate of Stanford University in nearby Palo Alto, Watson first teed it up at Pebble Beach during a high school visit to his future alma mater. He estimates that he played Pebble Beach a dozen times in college. Throughout much of his pro career, visits to Monterey Peninsula have had a familial feel. His older brother, Ridge, lives in nearby Carmel Valley, where he is the Winemaker and General Manager of Joullian Vineyards. “Every year, when we play the First Tee Open, I see him and we spend some time together,” Watson says. “I always go up to his place and pick plums. They have great plums around the first of September when we’re out there.”

Watson’s connection to golf on Monterey Peninsula came full circle in the mid-1980s, when he teamed with Sandy Tatum and Robert Trent Jones Jr. to design The Links at Spanish Bay, a links-style course off 17-Mile Drive that opened in 1987. His remarkable record as a links golfer made him a worthy designer. With five victories at the British Open and three more at the Senior British Open, many regard Watson as the greatest links player the game has ever seen, despite the fact that he wasn’t a fan of links-style golf early in his career. “When I first played over there, I didn’t care for the blind shots and what I perceived to be the luck of the bounce playing such a role in the game there,” he says. “I hadn’t learned that the game is played along the ground over there.”

Lessons learned at the British Open through the years continued to pay dividends during Watson’s run at the 2009 Open at Turnberry, where he finished second to Stewart Cink, who bested him in a four-hole playoff. A solid Wednesday practice round and an adjustment to his putting stroke left Watson feeling confident heading into the opening round. “During the playing of the tournament I did what I always do. I was trying to win a golf tournament,” he says matter-of-factly. “I felt very good about my chances. You might say that’s a touch arrogant considering that I was playing against the kids, but I’ve played there at Turnberry six times including Senior British Opens, so I considered it a home course advantage. And, as any golfer knows, when you start making everything with the putter anything is possible.”

Watson’s “victory” for the older generation was met with equal parts adoration and curiosity. If a 59-year-old can go toe-to-toe with the best players of this generation, fans reasoned, why couldn’t they step up their own games? For his part, Watson doesn’t really understand all the fuss. “After it was over, the magnitude of how the public perceived what I had done was apparent and they were very gracious,” he says. “I was very humbled by the magnitude of it all. It made me feel more important than I was, especially for a guy who finished second in a golf tournament. It was heartwarming, and I was humbled by it.”

At age 60, Watson still keeps himself in superb golf shape. In recent years, he’s stepped up his workout routine in an effort to retain flexibility and strength. “I’ve worked out more later in my career than I did early on,” he says. “I hit so many golf balls when I was younger that I didn’t need to work out. These days I do a full body workout. But the most important thing is stretching out. When you get to be older, your body doesn’t have the flexibility. You’ve got to be flexible before you hit your first golf shot. Warm up and get your body in tune.”

Watson’s immediate future is filled with—what else—more golf. He’ll finish up a course design this year at Loch Lloyd Country Club in his own back yard in Belton, Missouri, and is creating relationships in China that would allow him to build courses in that golf-crazed nation. “What China really needs is a bunch of courses that the public can play,” he says. “Maybe I can help them with that.” As a course designer, Watson’s philosophy is simple: keep people from losing golf balls. “It slows up play and no one likes it when they get charged two shots,” he says. “Too many courses are built with too many hazards around the course. You can make a challenging course for really good players without hazards, so that good players have to challenge the risk more than lesser players.”

As a Champions Tour member, Watson is still motivated by victories. “I didn’t win (in 2009), so that’s the goal,” he says. “I judge my year on whether or not I win. We’ve got Paul Azinger, Freddie Couples, and Tom Lehman on the Champions Tour, and we’ll have Kenny Perry coming up. That keeps the marketability of the Tour very strong.” Don’t expect Watson to give in to those “young guys” on the Champions Tour just yet, and don’t rule out another run at the 2010 British Open, which will take place at the birthplace of golf. “I’ve created some expectations after last year,” he admits. “But St. Andrews is a course I’ve had some pretty good success on. I’ve never won, but I’ve come close.”