Turnberry, Scotland Tom Watson was among the British Open champions whom the Royal & Ancient, the organizers of the Open, consulted when it decided the game was getting younger and it was time to lower the age limit to 60 for winners of golf’s oldest championship.
It might be time to reconsider.
Imagine how much different that conversation would have been had the Royal & Ancient seen a performance for the ages at Turnberry, where a 59-year-old Watson was in the lead the final three days and came within an eight-foot putt of winning.
“I’m sure if someone at age 59 had been winning the championship, bringing down the age limit would have been lower on the agenda,” R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said Monday. “But we brought down the age limit in order to give more spaces in the championship to younger players allegedly in their prime to compete.”
Watson sure looked in prime time at Turnberry.
Perhaps more people should have paid attention on the eve of the British Open when Watson spoke in reverent tones about his affection for Turnberry, where he had won 32 years earlier in the famous “Duel in the Sun” against Jack Nicklaus. He explained all week why he still can complete on links courses that require shots to be struck pure, not necessarily with power.
Watson wound up beating all but one player in the field.
Tiger Woods didn’t even make it to the weekend, hitting the ball poorly into a northwest wind during a pivotal stretch along the coast. Two-time defending champion Padraig Harrington was never a factor, finishing 14 shots behind.
Stewart Cink, a worthy champion who closed with a 69, still needed help from the old man. Watson’s 8-iron on the 18th had just enough bounce to roll off the back of the green. In the playoff, Watson looked his age for the first time and lost by six shots.
“It would have been a hell of a story,” Watson said. “It wasn’t meant to be. And, yes, it’s a great disappointment. It tears at your gut, as it always has torn at my gut. It’s not easy to take.”
Cink was too young to remember Watson’s victory at Turnberry, although he played a practice round with him at the Masters this year and was struck by how cleanly Watson hit the ball. Playing against him when it counted was more impressive.
“The same Tom Watson that won this tournament in ’77 showed up here this week,” Cink said. “And he just about did it. He beat everybody but one guy. And it was really special.”
The yellow scoreboard towered over the 18th green beneath a blue Scottish sky on a quiet Monday morning. The traditional message in red letters had yet to be removed, a somber reminder of who didn’t win the British Open.
“Well played Stewart. See you at St. Andrews 2010.”
Cink will arrive at the home of golf with the silver claret jug.
Barring another turn-back-the-clock moment, Watson will go to St. Andrews next year for a farewell party.
The British Open is the only major that sets an age limit for its champions. The U.S. Open gives only a 10-year exemption, while the Masters and PGA Championship offer their winners a chance to play as long as they want.
Augusta National announced an age limit of 65 this decade when its former champions began quitting after one round, sometimes even sooner. The club backed off, however, and the age limit was never imposed. The Masters left it up to their champions to decide when it was best to stop playing.
There’s no reason that couldn’t work at the British Open.
Watson is the first to concede he doesn’t have the length or the skills to compete at the Masters. He has not made the cut since 2002, nor has he broken 70 in the last 12 years. Rarely do former champions over 50 compete in the PGA Championship.
The British Open, held on links golf courses, is the only major where age shouldn’t matter.
“It’s great to see the names of the past competing,” Dawson said. “But I do think it’s important that we see them in a state where they are reasonably competitive. We don’t want it to become a procession. It still has to be a golf championship.”
This nearly was a coronation when Watson finished.
Tom Lehman went back onto the course to watch Watson, not wanting to miss a chance to see history. Justin Leonard, another former Open champion, returned to the 18th green as the man he called the “King of the Links” sought one more par for the victory.
“I don’t think we contemplated a 59-year-old leading the Open Championship going into the back nine on the final day,” Dawson said. “And every year after the Open, we look at the exemptions. No doubt, we’ll look at this one. It’s much too early to say what, if anything, we’ll do with it. But we’ll certainly be looking at it.”