Leader Blues

Friday, July 24, 2009

SPORTS>>Local golfers thrilled by Watson’s magic, disappointed by his collapse in playoff

Leader sports editor

It was nearly one for the ages … and for the aging as well.

Last Sunday, Tom Watson came within a nine-foot putt on the 72nd hole of the British Open of becoming the oldest player — by an astonishing 11 years — to win a major.

But that nine-foot putt might as well have been nine miles for the frightened, tenuous stroke the 59-year-old, five-time British Open winner offered at it. It was the beginning of a stunningly disappointing and anticlimactic conclusion to a miracle-in-the-making and a sports story that likely would have rated among the top five of all time.

The putt on 18 was so bad that Watson himself was unable to suppress a smirk and he soon found he had absolutely nothing left for the four-hole playoff. Stewart Cink won the Claret Jug by six shots over those four holes while an emotionally and physically drained Watson floundered to the end.

Shortly after it was over, I began to wonder just what impact Watson’s remarkable week at Turnberry might have had on older golfers in the area who remember him in his prime, and I sat down with a couple of Greystone Country Club members who both bear the name Ron Stewart. The two play together at Greystone and live on the same street. The younger of the two goes by the name R.G. The elder Stewart is 79 years old and carries a 12 handicap, while 53-year-old R.G. plays to a seven.

“I’m not a big Watson fan, but I was pulling immensely for him because of the accomplishment that would have been,” Ron said. “But I also think he made a bad choice of clubs on his third shot. And that putt wasn’t even close. Then I said that if he got to a playoff, he’d be done. He’d be emotionally spent. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Watson came into the 72nd hole needing only par but flew his approach shot over the green onto the back fringe. Rather than chip the ball from some 35 feet, Watson elected to putt it.

“I think he should have taken a lofted club and tried to impart some spin on the ball,” Ron said. “He just had to hit that putt so hard.”

Ron admitted that growing up, he was a big Arnold Palmer fan and found both Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson to be arrogant.

Ron said he was particularly upset with the way Watson handled his divorce 10 years ago. And yet, he still was pulling for him last Sunday and praised Watson for his honesty after the heartbreaking collapse.

“He was top notch,” Ron said. “He laid the blame on himself. And he was honest about being disappointed. He wasn’t going to say, ‘Oh, I had a great tournament.’

“It’s still a great story. But the way it ended really hurts.”

R.G. was also a Palmer fan first and foremost back in the day, but liked Watson a whole lot more than his buddy Ron. R.G. said most of his golf partners at Greystone were pulling for Watson.

“And it’s because we all relate to that — I mean a senior playing under that kind of pressure and that kind of spotlight and microscope,” R.G. said. “You couldn’t help but pull for him. It was a feel-good story. It would have been the No. 1 story of the year.”

R.G. said that the way it all ended — Watson’s woeful putt on 18 followed by bogey-par-double bogey-bogey — didn’t take away from Watson’s remarkable performance over the four days, but it still left him feeling a little hollow.

“It really diminishes the story,” he said. “I was real disappointed he wasn’t able to pull it off. I guess it’s because we are close to the same age and I would have just seen that as a tremendous accomplishment to have beaten all those flat-bellies.

“To be able to compete with all the young guys and do it well and almost pull it off.”

Ron also expressed his empathy with Cink, whose victory he thinks might be relegated to a footnote, like at the 1968 Masters when Bob Goalby won after actual victor Roberto Di Vincenzo signed an incorrect scorecard.

“That Masters is known as the one that Di Vincenzo lost,” Ron said. “And I’m afraid this one is going to be known as the one that Tom Watson lost. It will be a trivia question, ‘Well, who won?’”

Neither Ron nor R.G. think, as some critics have complained, that a 59-year-old competing for a major championship diminishes the reputation of the sport. Ron said those people don’t understand that it is all the changes in the game and in technology that make such a feat possible — from golf equipment to physical fitness to hip replacements.

“Fifty-nine is the new thirty-nine,” Ron insisted. “They didn’t have hip replacements 35 years ago. Plus the fact that (Turnberry) is not a long course. He wouldn’t do that on a long course.”

R.G. said the disappointment of Watson’s inability to seal the deal last Sunday was compounded by the once-in-a-lifetime nature of it.

“I kind of see it like Rocco (Mediate) and Tiger in the U.S. Open last year,” he said of Mediate’s and Woods’ phenomenal playoff duel. “I don’t see Rocco being able to duplicate that feat. And I think that’s probably true for Watson.

“I’d love to see it, and not just necessarily for Watson. Any of the other seniors, I don’t care who it was. If there was a senior competing in there on the last day of any major, they’d be my sentimental favorite. Everybody loves a long shot.”