Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Baby, one more time . . .

(Wanna be startin' something with the one glove!)

As Robert Lusetich put it, “It might have been one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen in sports,” and I suppose he’s seen a lot of sad things. Old Tom Watson, all 59 years of him, had taken a one-stroke lead into the final hole of The Open Championships at Turnberry. Needing only to par the hole to win his ninth major and become the most improbable victor in the history of sports, he instead flubbed two putts to end with a bogey, sending him into a playoff with Stewart Cink, who through no fault of his own had just become the villain of this morality play, and soon would become the destroyer of dreams.

I couldn’t find a live online video stream of the final round, so I settled for audio coverage, handled sparklingly by a pair of British announcers who commented with a melodious interplay of wit and charm that is simply foreign to their American counterparts. I listened to them amble from hopeful confidence in Watson’s chances to stunned deflation as the victory started to slip away so suddenly. When they announced Watson’s missed chance on the 18th hole, I actually felt a little sick to my stomach. As soon as he fell behind on the first hole of the four-hole playoff, I couldn’t listen anymore.

I’ve never wanted to play golf, and can only barely understand why anyone would. Walking around under a hot sun, a sack loaded with metal rods strapped to your back? I’ll pass, thanks. I think there’s a chain gang nearby that has an opening.

But I found myself mesmerized by the possibilities presented by this year’s British Open. When Watson shot a 65 and settled near the top of the leaderboard after the first round, I could smell a good, but brief, story. When he pulled into a tie for the lead after the second round and then kept the lead after the third, I was dumbfounded. The numbers: 59 years old. Watson last won a major in 1983, a generation ago. The oldest person ever to win a major: Julius Boros won the PGA Championship at 48. There’s always some old-timer who experiences a second wind at one of the majors, who seems touched by the gods of golf, at least for a few rounds, and this time, it was one of the legends of the sport.

Last year at the Open, it was 53-year-old Greg Norman’s turn to laugh in the face of Father Time. Like what happened with Watson, I found Norman’s run to be an inspirational story, and I was disappointed that he didn’t win, as well. But this year hurts more, and it’s because last year at Royal Birkdale, the Great White Shark faded early in the fourth round, and by midday, we had come to terms with his great attempt and inevitable failure. We wished him well as he went home with his newlywed bride, Chris Evert.

This year at Turnberry, Watson summoned some kind of power or sorcery to get within a hair’s breadth of a win. The 18th hole, his lips almost planted on the Claret Jug, and even when he fell there, he still had a chance in the playoff (although I think anyone who saw him knew that his only real chance to win was at that 18th hole). And there’s the history. Watson’s fabled “Duel in the Sun” with Jack Nicklaus happened on this very course in 1977, when the younger Watson conquered the older and far more celebrated Golden Bear on the final hole in what is considered by some to be the greatest golf tournament of them all. For Watson to win here again, 32 years later, when by all sanity, he should be sipping Arnold Palmers in a lawn chair somewhere – that would be history.

History, as opposed to just another Tiger-centric tournament. How rare is the former, and how increasingly unbearable is the latter. If Watson had won, it would have been the biggest story in the history of golf, and maybe even one of the biggest stories in sports history, right up there with the “Miracle on Ice” (if you’re into gee-whiz patriotism), Jesse Owens winning four golds at the Nazi Olympic Games, Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, and one of those Ali fights that everyone talks about.

Okay, so a Watson win probably wouldn’t have had the cultural resonance of those moments, but it really should. Golf is different from all other sports. It’s the only sport where a 59-year-old man could even have a chance of winning against men half his age. And yes, golf is meant to be played by the old, but as we saw this year and last, it certainly isn’t meant to be won by the old. If Watson had pulled it off, he would have single-handedly demolished what we all take for granted – that you can never be as good as you once were. The fact that he didn’t win means that we were all cheated of that upheaval.

I have no doubt that the better performer won the Open this year. But the better story? Not by a long shot. After all, do you remember who won the Open last year after Norman’s collapse? Yeah, I didn’t think so.


Henry said...

But what is the greatest sports story? In my opinion, it is Rocky Balboa, and the most inspirational Rocky fights were the ones he didn't win. As I see it, the single-minded obsession with victory has already ruined too many sports. (Tell me again what you thought of Dara Torres and why.)

To me, golf differs from other sports mainly in that the players do not compete directly. I suspect that makes the Watson defeat especially frustrating, because his loss cannot be chalked up as a credit to his uncelebrated opponent. But I think, win or lose, what matters is that he got as far as he did by his own 59-year-old human power. That's the story that we'll always need.

Czardoz said...

I thought about going into the fact that in golf, you are really competing against yourself, your nerves, and the course. (Although certain athletics, aka track and field, events are this way, too. Even a footrace is less of a direct competition than a sport where, for example, two people whack a ball at each other. I mean, if you fall over a hurdle, is it really the guy next to you who beat you?) So I agree that this is part of why Watson's loss is frustrating.

I don't know if Rocky is a great analogue here. We see Rocky's life story, and I don't think we love his sports story because he almost won a few fights, but because he overcame so much in his life story to be able to have the sports stories. From this perspective, I'm not obsessed with him achieving sports victories; rather, I want to see him victorious in life. I think this is a reasonable sentiment, because if we thought he lost at life, those movies would have sucked hard.

Maybe if I knew something about Tom Watson's life, I could feel about his journey the way I feel about Rocky's. Somehow, I doubt that Watson had as dramatic of a tragedy to triumph arc as Rocky had.

That said, I agree that single-minded obsession with victory is bad for sports - hence my utter contempt for Tiger's pursuit of Jack's majors record. Also my contempt for any hint of Lance Armstrong worship.

Dara Torres. Because of the 'roids, right?

By the way, I updated this post with new and better hyperlinks. Check 'em out.

Henry said...

My earliest viewings of Rocky consisted only of the last bout. All I really knew of his story was that he was the long shot, hence why we cheered for him. Yet as he reached toward the unlikely distance, there came a point at which the result no longer really mattered. His losing would not diminish the applause.

What I'm saying is that I just don't understand why everybody needed so badly for Watson to win in order for the story to have its perceived proper ending. Granted, I was not listening along to those British announcers' "stunned deflation."

Czardoz said...

In the hour or two it takes for a Rocky to battle an Apollo Creed to the distance, the audience can start to believe that the longshot can win it. When he doesn't, maybe they are inspired by his effort, and think, "What a great fighter." In the several hours it takes for Andy Roddick to take Roger Federer to five sets, the audience can start to believe that maybe just this once, Andy can beat his tormentor. When he loses, we admire him for going beyond what anyone expected of him.

There may be an agony that's peculiar to golf, because tournaments are played over four days. That's enough time for the audience to go beyond the "maybe he can do it" point. I think that in some sense and at some point during those four days, the underdog's victory begins to actually "exist" in the minds of the viewers. Then when he loses, it's like something's been taken away, even though in reality it never existed.

Rocky, at least in the first movie, was an upstart palooka. Roddick was a one-Slam wonder who faded when real men entered the scene. What's peculiar about Watson is that he was a great champion, a legend, maybe one of the five best golfers of all time.

What I know of Watson is that in the nine years from 1975 through 1983, he won eight majors, and was about as dominant as anyone can be in golf (Tiger Woods has won 14 majors in 13 years). Then all of a sudden, he could no longer putt worth a damn. He never won another major, and I'm sure everyone thinks he's now run out of chances. He wasn't just your typical longshot, and I'm certain that this is part of the great disappointment. To hope that old Tom, for just one tournament, could be young Tom again, and win like he did back then.

You're right, of course. He shouldn't have to win for there to be the "proper ending," and viewers shouldn't need him to win. And I don't think Watson's losing diminished the applause, either. In the end, the story of this tournament is still his story.

All I can say is that I'm sure there was a part of Watson that needed to win. Not the biggest part, and I think he's said as much in the post-tournament interviews. But having competed in a quasi-sport, ballroom dance, I know that there's nothing quite like the drive to be the best in a competition.

Ballroom dance is judged, so it's not quite like golf, but it's similar in the sense that you're both competing directly and indirectly with other competitors. And no matter what the standard is that you value most - whether it's the judge's results, or the crowd applause, or the purely internal judgment of whether you danced as well as you were capable of - there's a part of you that needs to meet your standard.

I don't know if Watson met his standard in this tournament. He's said that he hit the shots he wanted to and is happy with his play. But I sure don't get the same certainty I had with Rocky. After Rocky's losses, the audience knew that he was happy with how he did, so we could be happy for him, too. Would you still applaud, would you still say the "result no longer mattered" if you knew that he went home after his loss and cried and hated himself?

Deana said...

E gads, you're a good writer! Why aren't you sharing these gems with the world by spreading the word? I've always considered an email from you to be an epistolary treat, but never imagined such a confection of the blog variety. Write on.

Henry said...

As you are aware, Rocky was not the upstart through all six movies, and not all of his defeats were dignified. But it was never my intention to compare Watson to Rocky. I'm just disappointed that, in the grand scheme, the world of professional sports rolls on unmoved by Stallone's poignant story, instead persisting with the poisonous attitude that has produced nightmares like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

I'm not sure what great lesson for the rest of us there would have been in Watson's victory that did not come through in his narrow defeat, especially since it sounds to me like his crucial error was one that a younger man could just as easily have made. I know that seeing Rocky win brought a smile to my face, but I still had to meet my own drab reality the next day, and those images were of little help to me.

If people are sad for Watson because he is sad, then fair enough.

Henry said...

Damn! I clicked on the YouTube link hoping maybe for some footage of a fading Ali getting the Parkinson's pounded into him. Instead, that Code Veronica video may be the new Rickroll.

Czardoz said...

Rickroll . . . is that a thing?

Deana said...

Rickrolling is basically taking a Rick Astley song and either dubbing it over an existing video or laying the vocals over another track {instrumental version}. My favourite one is "Never Gonna Give You Up" synched to an old Muppet Show clip. You can find the vid here:

There's a recent Rickroll of the same song over Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but I don't really dig that one.


Czardoz said...

Yes, you and I have actually discussed Rickrolling in the past, and that Muppet one in particular.

I was actually facetiously trying to make a thing out of "is that a thing?" (See Jane Krakowski in 30 Rock.)

Deana said...

Deep Dish? Is that a thing?