This is what it'sall about: losing. Really. You're going to win some and lose more. That was thepoint of last week's British Open at Turnberry. Everyone paid more attention tothe loser than the winner, right? The loser, an old man—nearly 60!—lost withclass and heart and serenity and tired legs. He tried to turn back time. It wasa gallant effort, and he almost pulled it off.
True, somebody wonon Sunday. Somebody always wins, and the newest name on the claret jug belongsto 36-year-old Stewart Cink, a native son of Huntsville, Ala., with ahalf-million tweeps following his Twitter page and a long, elegant, GeorgiaTech--honed swing. His shaved head covered by a Kermit-green hat, and wearingbright white pants out of a Marine Corps recruiting ad, he played a wild finalnine holes, with only two pars but a closing birdie that got him a spot in aplayoff with Tom Watson, a 59-year-old Hall of Famer with an artificial lefthip, five British Open titles and an honorary guest bed in a million Scottishhomes. In the four-hole playoff Cink overwhelmed the wee mon, two under to fourover. Congratulations, Mr. Cink. You won your first major. Maybe you'll winothers. You're a bright, considerate man with serious talent. You earnedit.
In victory Cinkthanked his caddie, his swing coach, his junior-golf teacher, his wife, his twoboys, his Savior. He gave a heartfelt shout-out to Watson too. Cink most likelycouldn't remember Watson in his early prime. Little Stewie was four when Watsonwon his epic Duel in the Sun at Turnberry in 1977 over Jack Nicklaus. But thenew winner is well familiar with the Watson legend: the handful of Opens, thetwo green jackets from Augusta, the U.S. Open he stole from Nicklaus in '82 atPebble Beach, the winning Ryder Cup captaincy in '93.
On Sunday atTurnberry, the Duel in the Wind was at first about the promise of sportinghistory, and later about defeat. There was something gorgeous and sad andexhilarating about Watson's play and finish, with his wife, Hilary, his grownkids, Meg and Michael, and close friends watching in person or on TV. Watsonhad one cast left, and he had the fish hooked but could not reel it in. The oldman and the seaside links.
July 26, 2009
Oh, he'll winSenior events, and maybe he'll even contend next year when the Open returns toSt. Andrews, although he's already saying he won't, not if the wind blows outof the west. He says he can't play the course in that wind. He's ahyperrealist.
When it was over,a hundred or more reporters gathered solemnly in a white tent and listened toWatson open the session by saying, "This ain't a funeral, you know?" Helaughed, and everybody else did with him.
Still. All Watsonneeded was a par on the last to become, by 11 years, the oldest winner of oneof golf's four major championships. If he had shot 277 instead of 278, he wouldhave won his ninth major and tied Harry Vardon, a mustachioed Englishman bornin 1870, with a record six British Open titles. In the Age of Tiger, how can alargely retired golfer, seven weeks short of 60, grow his legend? Watson did.He said, "One of the things I want out of life is for my peers to say,'That Watson, he was a hell of a golfer.'" His peers have been saying thatfor decades. From here on out, they'll be saying it even more.
Tiger Woods likesto say "second sucks," and he acts as if he means it. When SteveWilliams, Tiger's caddie, implored Woods to hit a provisional ball after ahorrid way-right shot off the 10th tee last Friday, Tiger kept walking andmuttered, "F--- it," before finally making a U-turn.
Two decadesearlier, when Watson nipped Nicklaus at Turnberry, the two walked off the finalgreen arm-in-arm, the winner and the loser. Golf never looked better. WhenSunday's playoff was over, Watson kept grace alive. There was his longhandshake with Cink, which came only after Watson allowed the champ time toacknowledge the applause and savor the moment. There was his fifth straightsession in the press tent, where, his voice hoarse after a long day in the windand the sun, he offered no excuses. Not his age, not his man-made hip, not hisinfrequent play. Of his poor putt out of fluffy rough from behind the 72ndgreen, he said, "I gunned it." Of his ensuing 10-footer for par thatwould have won him the title, he said, "Made a lousy putt." Asked if heran out of gas in the playoff, he replied, "It looked like it, didn'tit?" Congratulations, Tom. You're what it's all about.
He's the same ashe ever was, or better.
This will soundcrazy, but it's true: His metronomic swing, always a joy to behold, has neverlooked this good. It goes up, it goes down, it goes through. Boom-boom-boom. Astudy in efficiency. (You cannot say the same of his close-range puttingstroke. It is short and stubby and nothing like his circa-1977 action, whichmakes his runner-up finish last week even more extraordinary.)
As a man, Watsonhas never been more appealing, which is not to suggest there's something easyand endearing about him, because there's not and never has been. He's woundtight and he can be painfully brusque. He once asked Davis Love III for aputting lesson, and Love gave him his best stuff, to which Watson responded,"That's wrong." Watson will, at times, show no patience for reporterswith questions or kids with programs to sign or tournament officials who can'tgive him rain-delay information quickly enough. After his first marriage endedin divorce in 1998, there was a long period when his relationships with hisdaughter and son were strained. Over the years, there have been dinners wherehe drank too much, angering his friends and family and worrying them too.
If real life werea VH1 special, we could cite a date when Watson's life changed and the road tolast week began. But life of course is messy, and all we can offer are somerecent milestones. He married Hilary Watson, former wife of golfer DenisWatson, in September 1999. He won the Senior British Open at Turnberry on July27, 2003, spending a happy and wistful week with his wife and their greatfriends Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, while keeping tabs on his longtime caddie,Bruce Edwards, who was battling ALS at home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Edwards,49, died on April 8, 2004. (Watson has been raising money for ALS research eversince.) He stopped drinking several years ago on a date known to him and notmany others. His relationship with both kids, Meg especially, has improvedsteadily over the past half-dozen years. He got a new hip last Oct. 2. Hemissed the cut at the Masters on April 10 by a dozen shots. (He says, nothappily, that he's a "ceremonial" golfer on the lengthened AugustaNational course.)
Then came lastweek, when he led the 138th British Open after the second and third rounds andseized the outright lead one last time at the 17th on Sunday. He smoked his teeshot on the par-4 18th and clipped a downwind eight-iron from 187 yards thatlanded short of the hole, took a big bounce and went over the green. Threeshots from there and the playoff was on. Watson was spent. His opponent wasnot.
Watson traipsed upand down Turnberry's dunes without a limp. As he managed his way around thecourse, a stunning links designed by God and some lesser-known architects, hewas the picture of contentment, even as the wind whipped about. Watson, as wellas anybody, could move his ball through it. In interviews, he kept talking indifferent ways about his serenity, and you could see his comfort all week long.He played a practice round with Charles Howell and Brandt Snedeker and toldthem old Tour stories, the likes of which they had never heard. Last Saturdaynight, Watson passed his close friend Andy North, the longtime ESPN golfcommentator and, at 6'4", the tallest winner of the U.S. Open, punched himon the hip, looked up and gave him a grin that seemed to say, Can you believethis?
After the playoffwas over, and while waiting for the prize ceremony to begin, Watson stoodbeside his golf bag and stared at his clubs, lost in thought, his wife's armfirmly around his waist, both of them so still and focused and centered youknew they knew: You lose more than you win. The fight was over, and Watson wasaccepting the outcome, even as he thought about what could have been.
In real lifeWatson is more fun than he sounds here. He has a nice sense of humor. Asked howhis old friend Sandy Tatum, the 89-year-old former USGA president, was handlinghis run at the title, Watson said, "It's giving him a heart attack!" Hehas lived in the Kansas City area all his life, and spurred on by his friendGeorge Brett, he used to own a small piece of the Royals. He goes with friendsto baseball games often. He hunts regularly, sometimes with Michael. He designscourses. He devours the news and argues politics, often taking Rush Limbaugh'sside of things when debating his caddie, Neil Oxman, a well-known Democraticpolitical strategist.
But, like ArnoldPalmer and Nicklaus before him, Watson has become a sentimentalist. Oxman is onthe bag because he was a friend of Edwards's; it was Oxman who first encouragedEdwards to ask Watson for work, way back in 1973. As Watson stood on the 18thfairway on Saturday, he said to Oxman, "Bruce is with us today." Afterhis opening round on Thursday, in which he shot 65—the same score he put up inhis last two rounds in the '77 Open—he said he was inspired by a text messagehe had received from Barbara Nicklaus. She wished him good luck, and it openeda floodgate of Turnberry memories: his triumph over Jack in the Duel in theSun; his 11th-place finish in the '94 Open, won by Nick Price, after which Tomand his first wife, Linda, and Jack and Barbara commiserated over dinner and acouple of bottles of wine; his Senior British win in 2003, with Oxman caddyingand nightly dinners with Hilary and the Nicklauses.
That victory, hesaid at the time, meant as much as any of his others, because he was winningfor "somebody other than myself"—Edwards, his wife, his kids. On thoseVH1 specials, everybody seems to talk like that. For Watson, it's about as easyas pulling his own tooth, but at least you know he means it.
On Sunday night hespoke affectionately of the Scottish galleries, who have been cheering him onfor 34 years now, since he won his first Open at Carnoustie, on the country'seast coast, in 1975. They stood for him as he came up the 18th the first timeon Sunday, when victory was in reach, and they stood for him the second time,when the promise of victory was extinguished. "That warmth makes you feelhuman," Watson said. Outside, it was cool and windy, but the greenhillsides and white chimneys of the Turnberry Hotel were bathed in yellow bythe late evening sun. "It makes you feel so good."
The Watsons werestaying in the Tom Watson Suite at the hotel, but this time the Nicklauses werenot around. They were at home in Florida, just as Woods was by Sunday, aftermissing the cut (by a shot) for the second time in a major since he turned proin late 1996. Some of Watson's contemporaries were at Turnberry, but only ascommentators: North, Isao Aoki, Bernard Gallacher, Sam Torrance. Tom Lehman,the 1996 British Open winner, 9½ years younger than Watson, finished his Sundayround and followed Watson all the way around on foot, hoping to see history.The two of them, along with CBS announcer David Feherty and swing coach ButchHarmon, made a goodwill visit to U.S. troops in Iraq in 2007. Watson listenedas Lehman, a fellow Ryder Cup captain, chatted with a veteran suffering fromsevere depression. Afterward, Watson said to Lehman, "That was impressive,the way you talked to that man." Lehman was stunned. It was the mostpersonal thing Watson had ever said to him. People change.
Golf games do too.Watson's game, he acknowledges, is aided by a titanium driver and hybridiron-woods and graphite shafts and today's ball that goes straighter in thewind. Seven weeks shy of 60, he played Turnberry in rounds of 65, 70, 71 and72. Two-seventy-eight, two under par. Nobody shot a lower score.
A day before theclaret jug was hoisted by the new champion, Barbara Nicklaus sent a text toHilary Watson. The first part of the message was golfer's wife to golfer'swife. The second part was golfing icon to golfing icon: "Jack says to tellTom he still knows how to win."
Maybe that's whyWatson looked serene as he stared at his clubs on Sunday night. Jack had itright. The man does still know how to win. Sure, he lost a four-hole playoff.But he won everything else.
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"This ain't a funeral, you know?" Watson saidafter he fell short.
Watson gave no excuses—not his age or his hip or hisinfrequent play.
A text from the Nicklauses opened a flood of Turnberrymemories for Watson.