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In His Element

Aug. 06, 2007
Aug. 06, 2007

Table of Contents
Aug. 6, 2007

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus
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PRO FOOTBALL
Life of Reilly

In His Element

Years ago, Tom Watson came to the conclusion that instead of fighting the wind and the vagaries of links golf, he should go with the flow--a precept that again proved its worth during his victory at the Senior British Open

The three-ironthat Tom Watson hit from Muirfield's 17th fairway last Saturday evening won'tmake his list of career shots; it came up 15 yards short of the green. But thesun was at his back, throwing golden rays from its perch above the Firth ofForth, and the sky ahead roiled with dark clouds from a furious squall that hadpassed over the course. Watson held his follow-through and watched the flightof his shot with absorption, as he always does. He then lowered the club andturned to his caddie, Neil Oxman, saying, "Didn't my ball look beautifulagainst that dark sky?" ¶ It was a purely aesthetic judgment. Watson, morethan any other golf star of his time, has the gift of detachment, an almostout-of-body awareness of the landscape, the sky, the people following him andhis place in history. It was hardly surprising, then, that Watson, who is 57,won his third Senior British Open on Sunday the Watson way. The scoreboard saidhe won by shooting even-par 284 over a wind-raked Muirfield links, which was astroke better than Stewart Ginn and Mark O'Meara could do. But Watson'stight-lipped smile, which rarely left his face, said he won because he couldn'tlose. ¶ Attitude counts for a lot in links golf, where nature and man oftenconspire against the player. The East Lothian wind was relentless last week,blowing the creases off trouser legs and making flags pop like small-arms fire.The Muirfield rough was a nightmare--waist-high in places and so thick thatthree-time British Open champ Gary Player nearly demanded that it be tested fordrugs. "It surprises me," said Player, "that they have made theSenior Open so much tougher than the regular Open. It sends the wrongmessage." ¶ Muirfield was so tough in Friday's belt-loosening wind thatfirst-round co-leader Nick Job, who started at three under, shot an 85 andmissed the cut. On Saturday, when the gale blew straight off the Firth, only 16of 77 players managed to par the 449-yard 1st hole, and the last two threesomeswere collectively nine over par before they reached the 2nd tee. "Thesituation of only one semi-cut is stupid and over the top," said Job,referring to Muirfield's mowing scheme of short rough that abruptly ends atknee-deep hay. "It's too demanding, really. The fairways are narrow in thebest of times."

This is an article from the Aug. 6, 2007 issue

Watson, after asecond-round 71, had a different take: "I loved it out there. It was just agreat day on the golf course."

But that was afive-time British Open champion speaking. And even Watson admitted that he hadnot always cherished the linksland. "When I first came over here," hesaid on Saturday, "I tried to fight the wind and the general conditions.But that didn't work." So the young Watson decided to give in. "Notsurrender, mind you, but to go with it, to use the wind. Once I did that, mylinks game improved."

Watson's examplewas not lost on his peers, who tried to emulate his carefully distilledfatalism. In one of last week's subplots, the Drogheda man, Des Smyth, madeIrish eyes smile by taking the second-round lead at two-under 140. Smyth wastrying to follow in the week-old footsteps of British Open champ PadraigHarrington, whose smile still lit Ireland five days after his triumphant returnto Dublin. (Smyth, who made a run at glory when the British Open was played atMuirfield in 2002, retreated in Saturday's gale and tied for 10th.) EduardoRomero raised similar hopes among Argentine golf fans, who were still giddyover the exported heroics of U.S. Open winner Angel Cabrera and British Opencontender Andrés Romero (who was busy last week winning the Deutsche Bank onthe European tour). Eduardo, who lost last year's British Senior to LorenRoberts in a playoff at Turnberry, fell short again at Muirfield, going 73-74on the weekend to tie for fourth.

But it wastelevision's Nick Faldo, making his Champions tour debut, who commanded themost attention. The Englishman turned 50 on July 18, and he showed up atMuirfield with a rusty game and a calculated flippancy, saying, "I am justgoing to tag along." But Faldo, who won two of his three British Opentitles at Muirfield, carries fond memories of the 1987 Open, at which he made18 final-round pars to edge Paul Azinger, and the '92 Open, at which he birdiedtwo of the last four holes to overtake John Cook. It was Muirfield '92, infact, where the previously stoic Faldo unmasked himself with a giddy gallopthrough a trophy ceremony that featured a crying jag, a croaky rendition ofFrank Sinatra's My Way and Faldo's classic thanking of the tabloid press"from the bottom of my--well, from my bottom, maybe." These days,ironically, he spends 44 weeks a year sitting on his bottom for CBS and GolfChannel. "I can go on memories," Faldo said after a practice round lastweek, "but I've still got to hit the golf ball."

So no one was moresurprised than Faldo when he went out on Thursday morning and shot 68, good fora quarter share of the first-round lead. "You have to walk yourself throughit rather than it being automatic," he said afterward, hinting that age andinfrequent practice have made his otherwise fit body a less dependable machine."You can't simply stand up and swing."

In all otherrespects, time seemed to have delivered Faldo to Muirfield in a stretch limo.He looked even taller and straighter than he did while winning three Masterstitles between 1989 and '96. His hair was movie-star thick, his smilemovie-star broad. He emoted more than he used to, waving his putter infrustration when a putt veered left or right, squatting in the fairway andstaring at the ground after a disobedient approach shot. He has developed theskill set of the celebrity golfer, and it's safe to say that there was no morecharismatic player at Muirfield.

Muirfield's rough,unfortunately, is no red carpet. The long grass grabbed Faldo's drivesrepeatedly over the next three rounds, and he looked noticeably tired when hefinished play on Sunday at 292, in 14th place. "Boy, does he grind,"Watson said of Faldo after playing with him for the first two rounds. "Hetakes three practice swings, and he's trying everything possible to play thebest possible shot."

Watson grinds,too, but he's less deliberate than Faldo, and there were times last week whenhe hit key shots almost heedlessly. Weighing on his mind--lurking, perhaps,behind the cloud formations that fascinated him so--was the memory of hisfinal-round collapse in last month's U.S. Senior Open in Haven, Wis., whereWatson shot 43 on the final nine to hand the tournament to Brad Bryant. Askedat Muirfield if he wanted to erase that memory, Watson nodded and said, "Ihate failure. I need to get even."

To do that, hefirst had to catch Ginn, the third-round leader. Ginn, whose wire-rimmedspectacles and long, frizzy hair make him look like a hippie candlemaker, is anAustralian-born pro who lives in Malaysia. Before Muirfield, he had donenothing much in 2007--he was 121st on the Champions money list--but he is aformer winner of the Ford Senior Players Championship, which the senior tourtreats as a major. "I haven't done stoutly well on links," he concededon Saturday, "but I guess as you get older, you understand it a little bitmore."

On Sunday, Ginnlearned that some things surpasseth all understanding. Watson caught up with abirdie on the 3rd hole, and as sun followed rain and the wind came up again, hepulled out to a four-shot lead over Ginn, Romero and O'Meara, another formerBritish Open champ. Watson was two under and still three strokes to the goodwhen he drove into a steep-faced fairway bunker on the par-4 18th (BIG PLAY,page G18). That made it interesting, because it took Watson two shots to escapethe pit, and his fourth, from the fairway, bounced a few paces to the right ofthe green. No matter. Using his big-headed putter, Watson rolled his ball downto tap-in range. When neither O'Meara nor Ginn scared the hole with their longbirdie attempts, Watson bumped it in for his 49th career win.

Through it all,the wind and sky kept performing their wonderful tricks. While waiting on the16th tee, Watson's threesome had watched a spectacular rainbow fan out fromhorizon to horizon, the brightest segment flowing right down to the Muirfieldclubhouse. "You notice those things when you're older," Watson saidafter the trophy ceremony. "You're not so focused on birdies and bogeys andall that stuff."

His smile saidanother nine holes wasn't out of the question.

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PHOTOFred Vuich DOUBLETROUBLE
Watson, who won the third of his eight British titles at Muirfield in 1980,survived a double bogey on the 72nd hole.
TWO PHOTOSFred Vuich GINNFIZZ
Faldo (above) opened strong, while Ginn, only 121st on the money list, was inthe lead after three rounds.
PHOTOFred Vuich STAYINGON MESSAGE
Player didn't back down from his drug charge.