He stood therelast Saturday like a carving on a mythical Mount Watson, poised at the upperend of the 6th fairway at Whistling Straits, studying the green below whiledeciphering his next shot in the U.S.¬†Senior Open. From a spectator'svantage point below, Tom Watson looked heroic, like George Washington crossingthe Delaware. At least one photographer thought so too, because the moment wassplashed across the front of the Sunday sports section of the Milwaukee JournalSentinel, under the headline lonely at the top. ¬∂ Watson truly is golfingroyalty to those of a certain age, the last in a line of superstars from thetime before Tiger. In the 1960s golf had its Big Three--Jack Nicklaus, ArnoldPalmer and Gary Player, with Billy Casper in the mix. Next came Lee Trevino andJohnny Miller. And then there was Watson, who would prove the worthiestsuccessor to the Big Three by winning eight major championships.
Now 57, Watson hasdeep lines on his face, a weathered neck and the trace of a limp from a bum hipthat makes it difficult for him to spread his legs wide enough to ride hishorses at his ranch outside Kansas City, Mo. ("My wife said I should getskinnier horses," Watson says.) But his rhythmic swing has aged better thana Mercedes, and last week, on a windswept monster of a course in Haven, Wis.,that the Watson of old would have boldly engaged and conquered, the old Watsondidn't fare too badly. A six-under-par 66 in the second round gave him the36-hole lead, and a vintage display of scrambling kept him at the top after 54.After a couple of birdies around the turn on Sunday, Watson was three strokesahead with eight to play and on the verge of winning the Senior Open for thefirst time.
Watson is at thepoint in his career where he is a sentimental favorite. Nobody says it, nobodywrites it, but the truth is that everyone roots for him because the clock isticking. He has done nearly all there is to do in the game. The only major hefailed to win was the PGA Championship, although he satisfyingly took the 2001Senior PGA. The last major milestone left for him is the Senior Open. Watsonhas finished second three times. Once, in 2002, he lost a five-hole playoff toDon Pooley. Last year at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kans., before a partisanhome crowd, he was edged out by Allen Doyle.
Last week Watsonwas outplayed down the stretch by Brad Bryant (affectionately known asDoctor¬†Dirt during his PGA Tour days). The combo platter of a remarkableround by Bryant, whose 68 was the low score of the day, and an eight-holecollapse by Watson, who shot a seven-over 43 on the final nine, led to Bryant'sfirst major victory and another stinging defeat for Watson. "Yeah, 43doesn't get it done," was all he could say afterward.
Bryant, whofinished three shots ahead of Ben Crenshaw, four ahead of Loren Roberts andfive clear of Watson, was humble in victory. "I've always been ajourneyman," he said. "To beat a couple of the best players in theworld is near miraculous. I don't think any of us understand how significantthis is for a guy like me."
A victory, though,would've been oh-so-significant for Watson. That's why his favorite better-ballpartner, two-time U.S.¬†Open champion Andy North, and North's daughterAndrea had driven the two hours from their house in Madison to walk the final18 in Sunday's withering heat with Tom's wife, Hilary, and his son, Michael.You never know if Watson's next major victory will be his last, and you don'twant to miss it.
North says hisfriend has a lot of game left. "He can still really play. People would beblown away by how little he practices now. It's fun to watch him when he'son."
Saturday's round,during which Watson scraped together a 73, was right out of 1980. His downwindapproach to the 5th green bounced hard on the front of the green and rolleddown a slope to the right, leaving a tricky 45-foot putt up the hill and over acrest. When Watson rolled it in, he pumped a clenched fist in the air as anexclamation point, a goose-bump moment. Two holes later, on a par-3 calledShipwreck, his tee shot drifted right and bounced down a terrace into the roughnear a bunker. He was short-sided and had a terrible lie, yet played a sweetpitch that spun to a stop 20¬†feet past the pin. He rolled that one in too.Another clenched fist, another roar from the gallery, more goose bumps.
Sunday was anotherstory. After Watson made back-to-back birdies at the 9th and 10th holes, therewas reason to believe that this might finally be his time. But it all suddenlyunraveled at the par-5 11th, where he hit a poor drive and a chunky nine-ironthird and then needed four shots to get down from in front of the green. It wasan ugly double-bogey 7. "That was a real body blow," Watson said.
He three-puttedthe 12th. Bogey. His drive at the 13th missed the fairway by a yard. Anotherbogey. There was one last Watson Par--a phrase that entered the game's lexiconin the 1970s when Watson's scrambling abilities were at their zenith. Hisapproach at 14 flew the green and landed on a downslope on the back edge of abunker. He appeared to have no chance of getting his ball onto the green.Somehow, he splashed out to eight feet and sank the putt.
That momentarilystopped the bleeding, but his tee shot at 15 ran through a fairway bunker intothe rough next to a low-lying bush. We'll skip the gory details: He made adouble bogey while Bryant, a hole ahead, hit the shot of the championship, athree-wood second to just off the green at the par-5. He chipped close for thebirdie that put him three ahead, and just like that, it was Bryant's Open.
"I Tom's hipwas hurting him, but he's never going to tell you that," North said. Watsondoesn't make excuses. He plays on, but not next week, when the British Openreturns to Carnoustie, the site of his first Open win. He won't be therebecause his daughter, Meg, is getting married. Watson will play the week afterin the Senior British Open at Muirfield, where he is revered for winning fiveOpens. The Scots know royalty, and heroes, when they see them.
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