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Archive for Monday, July 20, 2009

Even in defeat, Watson triumphs

July 20, 2009

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— You know what this means, don’t you?

It means that the burden of expectation just rose a ton or two for 59-year-old men who view mowing the lawn as if it were Mt. Everest.

It means that afternoon naps are going to look very, very lame from now on.

It means that saying, “I think my bunions are acting up again,” isn’t going to cut it as an excuse.

Tom Watson is 59, and he lost a four-hole playoff at the British Open on Sunday. Stewart Cink, poor guy, was the “winner.” He might as well have been the head cover on Watson’s driver for all the interest he stirred up for most of the first 72 holes.

This Open was a four-day exercise in different ways of asking the question, Are you kidding me?

How did Young Tom Watson almost win at Turnberry? Simple: through a combination of course knowledge, muscle memory, adrenaline, an understanding of the moment and a refusal to listen to the idea that 59 is a temperature, not an age when one should be leading a major golf tournament.

If you look out your window right now, you’re likely to see an AARP member limbering up. Watson’s performance was that inspiring. You’re probably going to hear that 59 is the new 29. It’s not.

But it did an eerily good imitation of it Sunday.

“This is fantasyland,” a stunned Curtis Strange said at one point during ABC’s broadcast.

That it was.

Watson had a one-stroke lead over Cink going into the 18th hole. He had owned the lead or been around it most of the day, and here he was with that pursed-lips smile signifying there was still work to be done. He had looked so in control—of his game, of his emotions, of the tournament.

Every swing he took leading up to the final hole looked so balanced, you figured you could put a pint on top of his left golf shoe during an approach shot and not lose an ounce.

But after a decent drive on No. 18, he fired a fuel-injected 8-iron over the green and into a short cut of rough, then missed badly on an eight-foot par putt that would have put his name on the claret jug for the sixth time.

It was painful to watch, and there was concern that fatigue was lurking around the next dogleg.

Something indeed grabbed at Watson and pulled him down on the third extra hole, No. 17, when his drive went far left into heavy hay. A double bogey all but ended the tournament.

Had his age finally betrayed him? Perhaps, but there’s no shame in that. To be doing something, anything, at an elite level at such a ripe age is incredible.

How was Watson’s accomplishment possible? Golf equipment surely played a role. Advancements in club and ball technology allow him to hit the ball as far as when he was in his prime. But that explanation only takes you so far. Tiger Woods, who can hit it farther than Watson whenever he wants, didn’t make the cut. All sorts of younger, stronger players finished behind Watson, a winner of eight majors.

By its nature, golf allows for this sort of thing. It is not the most taxing sport. You will not find a 59-year-old dominating the NBA Finals or a 59-year-old playing in the finals at Wimbledon. But take it for what it is and appreciate it.

What we saw was a confluence of talent, experience and will, with a pinch or two of magic stirred in. The first step toward making something happen is believing it can. All day, the focus written on Watson’s face said he wasn’t in this for nostalgic purposes.

“Well, it would have been a hell of a story, wouldn’t it?” he would say later.

It would have been. He would have been the oldest major winner by 11 years. But this was enough.

With his fair skin and gap-toothed smile, Watson always has looked as if he were from Scotland—and no more so than Sunday, when he seemed right at home in the blustery wind. This was his tournament, and these were his people.

When Cink hit a nice shot, the gallery offered polite applause. You had the feeling that if Watson repaired a ball mark, the crowd would respond with a thunderous ovation.

But there was nothing Cink could do about it, and he knew it. He was along for the ride, and he was OK with that. What a ride it was, and it didn’t even require a cart for a 59-year-old golfer.

It’s unlikely Watson can duplicate his Turnberry performance, but then again, who would be silly enough to bet against him? Not anyone who saw what he did over four days at the British Open.

Leading after the first round is one thing for a soon-to-be 60-year-old. Leading going into the 72nd hole is almost beyond belief.

Had his age finally betrayed him?

Perhaps, but there’s no shame in that.

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