by Jeff Skinner
When the 138th Open Championship started on last Thursday there were high expectations that this would be a memorable tournament. The favorite as always was Tiger Woods and there was plenty of speculation on who would contend. The prognosticators had the names of dozens of golfers that could be the one to take home the Claret Jug: Westwood, Casey, Garcia, Mahan, Furyk, Goosen, McIlroy, Poulter, Villagas, Stricker, Perry all were listed as possible winners. In addition to those there were the players that had their own special stories that made then news worthy; John Daly, David Duval, Adam Scott, Paddy Harrington and Greg Norman. There was much anticipation that Norman would be the “senior” golfer that makes some noise, based on his play last year. There was a lot of talk about Tom Watson also, but only in reference to his epic battle with Jack Nicklaus in the famous “Duel in the Sun” way back in 1977 at the host Turnberry course. Norman was supposed to be the player that showed that older golfers can still compete with the young guys on occasion. As they say in sport, “That is why the play the game.” After they played two rounds of the Open many of those names were long gone having failed to make the cut, including Woods and Norman. In Norman’s stead was fifty nine year old Tom Watson. Watson, a five time Open Champion and eight time major winner had made a deal with the devil or the golfing gods and was leading the tournament. Watson is a special player. He came to love playing links courses as a young man and developed into the best links player of modern golf. But, could Watson really compete with these younger, stronger golfers?
One must understand the heart that is within this man. He was not playing at Turnberry as a “ceremonial golfer” without any chance to win. He was not playing in this Championship to commemorate the Duel in the Sun. He was playing here as he does every time he tees it up, he was playing to win. His first three rounds were full of magic and excitement and had the golfing world shaking its collective head. His opening round was a bogey free 65 and many thought how great it was to have a legend play so well. During his second round he had five bogeys in six holes on his front nine and could have folded then but he didn’t. He was able to settle himself and salvaged his round with three birdies on the back and ended with a par round. He was still hanging around, but many thought he would fade soon enough. In difficult conditions in round three, where bogeys outnumbered birdies Watson found magic on the back nine with birdies on both sixteen and seventeen to take the 54 hole lead in the tournament. He set the record for the oldest 54 hole leader in a major championship.
All during the tournament Watson was speaking in terms of spirituality and serenity and how special it was out there all the time. We all felt the same way. There was going to be a supernatural conclusion to this tournament. This was going to be Watson’s biggest win ever. This was destined to be the greatest win in major championship history.
Watson started the final round poorly with a bogey on number one. While he was making a par on the second hole, Ross Fisher made his second birdie of the day and Watson was out of the lead. After Watson made three straight pars he finally got on the board with a birdie on seven but Lee Westwood had just eagled seven right before him to go to -4 and a one stroke lead on Watson. After Watson’s approach on nine was short of the green he carded another bogey to fall to -3. At the same time Westwood bogeyed ten to go to -3. Watson finally found some magic with his putter on eleven and sank a long birdie putt to tie Westwood and Mathew Goggin who had climbed to -3 also. For awhile it looked like a new Duel in the Sun with Westwood and Watson going at it, only in different pairings. They stayed even with each other over four holes, but when Westwood went bogey, bogey on fifteen and sixteen he fell one back of Watson. Watson was on the seventeenth tee when at -2 and in the lead but Stewart Cink sank a clutch birdie putt on eighteen to go to -2. Shortly, Westwood would bogey eighteen to fall to -1. There was no worry in Tom Watson, there was no panic. He knew that seventeen was a birdie hole and when his eagle putt from the fringe didn’t fall he tapped in for birdie and a one stroke lead at -3 with one hole to play. There was no one left on the course to challenge him. Cink was done and waiting at two under. Watson needed only a par to complete the most amazing championship win in history. Watson had good success on eighteen with two pars and a birdie over the first three rounds. It appeared to be no different here when he placed his tee ball in the middle of the fairway. You could feel the excitement and the passion that was brewing. The crowd had been Tom’s crowd all week and here was their hero looking at the greatest win ever. He choose to hit an eight iron from 187 yards with a strong helping wind and he hit it flush. His ball hit a few feet short of the pin and rolled off the back of the green and rested against the beginning of the rough. He had carried his shot just a little too far on the green. Still he only needed to get up and down for par and he would join Harry Vardon as the only six time winners of The Open. This was an easy task for Watson. In his prime he was a master of the up and down. He even titled one of his instruction books “Getting Up and Down” by Tom Watson. Instead of chipping Watson took his putter from his bag and many hard core Watson fans were surprised. His shot from the edge of the rough was mediocre at best and rolled well past the hole. He now needed to sink this putt for par to avoid a playoff with Cink. Watson had found magic all week, but this time there was no magic in his short stick. His putt was weak and right and as the ball turned away from the hole all the magic and spirit and luck that had carried Watson all week melted away. It was his worst putt of the week and the tournament was done. Sure, he still had a four hole playoff with Cink to try and reclaim what he had just squandered away, but at that point Watson had no more to give. He was spent, he was done, there was nothing left. There was no adrenaline left, no energy, no spirit, and no serenity.
Cink won the playoff playing excellent golf with two birdies while Watson could barely get the ball onto the green. He was a courageous player that had nothing left to give and Stewart Cink was the Champion Golfer of the Year. Stewart Cink played well on Sunday. Players will tell you that in a major the plan is to put yourself in position on Sunday. Cink did just that and reaped the rewards. He will be heralded as the 2009 Open Champion and that is rightly so, but this open was all about Tom Watson.
Afterward, Watson was open and honest in his assessment of his play. As the media sat silently before the start of his press conference he said to them,”Hey, this ain’t a funeral you know.” After a chuckle he went on, “It would have been a hell of a story, but it wasn’t to be.” “It tears at my gut… it is a disappointment.” Asked what he would take away from this Watson said, “A lot of warmth and a lot of spirituality.” He said “it was fun to be in the mix again…having kids that are my kid’s age look up at me and say wow.” He was asked what he thought his peers would say about him and he said, “I’d like to think that my peers would say he was a hell of a golfer.”
Watson entered this Open with two people thinking he could contend: himself and his wife. He battled a tough course, a course he knows better than most professionals, and was on the verge of the greatest win in golfing history. All the while he displayed the class, sportsmanship and dignity that has made him one of the most revered and respected players in golf. There is no one like Tom Watson left in the game today. He is our connection back to the golden days of Arnie, Jack, Player and Watson. These men were some of the best players and the greatest sportsman that this game has seen. It is difficult to let these men go, that is why all of us wanted Watson to do it. We wanted another legend holding the Claret Jug to his lips in victory. We wanted another chance to relive our past, a past that has been made so glorious by men like Tom Watson. He may not be the Champion Golfer of the Year, but he’s Tom Watson, a legend and one hell of a golfer.