The eight-foot putt on the 18th green will live as the signature of the beginning of the end of what would have been the greatest story in the history of sports. From that moment on, Tom Watson acted his age. Still, centering on the putt and the ensuing playoff collapse isn’t the right way too look at it.
Rewind just two shots from the badly stroked putt on which he committed the mortal sin of decelerating repeated by so many hackers on so many Sundays, and that’s where Watson lost the British Open at the age of 59.
On Watson’s second shot on No. 18, an 8-iron into the green, he looked too strong, too flexible, too brimming with vim, generating too much youthful adrenaline. A few feet shorter, a few feet weaker, just a few wrinkles closer to his age, and Watson’s on the green, two putts away from making the U.S. Olympic semifinal hockey victory against the Soviet Union in 1980 look predictable by comparison. Instead, the shot rolled off the back of the green, and the rest is history.
Still, this shouldn’t be a negative Watson memory. Strangely, in the televised press conference afterward, someone asked Watson if he would rather the whole weekend not had taken place so that his British Open memories would be all good ones. The guy had just enraptured a world-wide audience in a manner even Tiger Woods never has, and he’s supposed to regret the weekend? Bizarre.
Watson changed Sunday conversations at golf courses in Lawrence and presumably around the world in a way that seldom happens. Golfer after golfer lamented his near miss. Normally, golf course conversations go like this: One golfer talks about his or her round, and the person listening isn’t listening at all, rather waiting for the other to take a breath so that he or she can jump in and give his or her own shot-by-shot account of which nobody hears a single word. Not Sunday. Everybody talked about Watson and everybody wished him he had won his sixth Claret Jug.
At Alvamar Country Club, head pro Randy Towner said the 10th hole was backed up by four or five groups because golfers stopped in the bar and grill to watch Watson. Towner spent part of the time on the phone with North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams, giving him a shot-by-shot account as Williams was driving from Asheville to Chapel Hill. Towner, Williams and Watson golfed together after Watson was named Ryder Cup captain and wanted to pick the coach’s brain about the keys to success in team sports. Watson’s remarkable weekend sent Towner’s memory spinning back to the first time he saw him.
“Hillcrest Country Club, junior golf (tournament),” Towner said. “A 235-yard par-3 first hole, and all the kids are hitting their drivers. I hit my driver halfway down the hill, and then I see this little red-headed kid hit it right in the middle of the green with his 5-iron, and I’m saying to myself, ‘What in the world am I doing here?’”
All these decades later, Watson still belies his age. The weekend he just treated us to ranks him ahead of George Blanda and George Foreman, Nolan Ryan and Satchel Paige in the fountain-of-youth category, leaving his age-defying feat second only to Sophia Loren’s appearance.