Monday, July 20, 2009

The Hero of Turnberry: Watson’s Meltdown Won't Eclipse His Achievement

Subbing for Tony Kornheiser Friday on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” veteran sportswriter Bob Ryan averred that if 59-year-old Tom Watson were to win the British Open it would be bad for the game of golf.

Watson’s too old, Ryan said, asserting his belief that old guys don’t make great achievements in other sports—because their juniors are younger, stronger, better—and if Watson outclassed the field at Turnberry it would expose the current crop of competitors as weak sisters. (Presumably that would include Tiger Woods, who missed the cut altogether.)

Ryan’s co-host Dan Le Batard, subbing for Michael Wilbon, chimed in, with some wonder, that you never see 59-year-old’s tossing no-hitters or winning Super Bowls at quarterback, and Ryan jumped on that quickly. “Precisely,” he said. “Which is why it’s not good for golf if Watson wins.”

Ryan, an old fart himself—Should he not win any sportswriting awards at his age?—possibly had a point of some kind. And maybe the fact that Watson was, at the end, challenging the likes of Stewart Cink, Lee Westwood and Matthew Goggin for the Claret Jug was an indicator of golf’s low-ebb talent pool.

Well, Ryan got his wish, and Cink—a good but not elite player—finally won a major, besting Watson in a four-hole playoff in which the senior legend truly looked like an old man, devoid of the strength and stamina we normally expect of champions.

But until his meltdown on the 18th hole in regulation play—his unfortunate, gut-wrenching bogey forced a tie with Cink—Watson was the man. True, his opponents were variously blowing their opportunities to one-up him, but that, of course, wasn’t Watson’s fault. He played consistently good golf for four days, and his experience on the Turnberry course played to his advantage. (We might also mention that Watson—only nine months removed from hip replacement surgery—hit a 297-yard tee shot at one point during the tournament, proving that he can still swing the big clubs with remarkable vigor for a man his age.)

It was very sad that Watson blew his chance. A simple, straight-ahead par on 18 in regulation was all he needed to win the tourney outright. His tee shot was good. His second shot was flawed—ironically, the old man hit it too hard—but after bouncing impressively on the green, the ball kept rolling, beyond the hole and off the green, down a short ridge and into the short rough. Yet even then, Watson was in a very do-able position.

Only the gods of golf might explain what happened next. Instead of chipping the ball back onto the green, hopefully into position for a short par putt, Watson chose his putter, hoping to scoot the ball up the low rise. It was a safety-first kind of move, the sort of thing Watson had been successfully doing all week.

Much will be made of the par putt that Watson eventually blew, but that third shot was the key. Pushing the ball uphill with his putter, Watson struck the ball too hard and also miscalculated the grain of the green, the ball whizzing well past, and significantly to the left of, the hole.

When the finesse he had exhibited all week was demanded most—Where was the short, artful chip that might’ve positioned the ball for a winning gimme par putt?—Watson glitched. Of course, even then he still might’ve holed the 8-foot putt, but that was, also surprisingly, a very lame effort—and anyone watching the tourney knew that the veteran had little chance versus the younger, bigger, more vigorous Cink in a playoff.

Watson’s failure eventually has made it tough for the rest of us to put his achievement into perspective. To be one stroke away from winning the British Open at the age of 59 is simply phenomenal. Even in defeat, it remains historic. Watson proved that a veteran craftsman can eclipse the young turks if the circumstances are right, and he certainly struck a blow for older golfers everywhere, Bob Ryan be damned. (Keep on grinding, one hole at a time, fellas.)

Someday, Tiger Woods will be 59. He’ll be hard-pressed to equal Watson’s feat. In fact, he may never come that close at a much younger age.

Stewart Cink may have won the 2009 British Open, but Tom Watson was the hero of Turnberry. He came just close enough to touch golf’s Mount Olympus and inspire us all.

1 comment:

Deanna said...

Ageism is rampant in this country, and Watson was one of the first to shame himself afterward ("Well, they lowered the age to 60 and I think that's a good thing - let the younger players have their chance...") But the younger players could stand to learn a bit about the mantle of experience, grace under pressure and humility from the likes of Tom Watson.