(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.