A hard-fought playoff win by Tom Watson at the Champions tour's most storied major, the Senior PGA, highlighted one of golf's greatest virtues
This is an article from the June 6, 2011 issue
Just to clear up any confusion you may have, there are three senior majors: the British Senior Open, the U.S. Senior Open and the granddaddy of the trio, the Senior PGA Championship, won last week by Tom Watson in a one-hole playoff over David Eger. Watson looked at the winner's shiny hardware and said, "This is the heaviest trophy in professional golf." xMust be. It's bigger than Eddie Lowery.
Kelly Elbin, a PGA press official, told Watson that at 61 he is the second-oldest winner of the trophy. Watson, being Watson, asked, "Who's the oldest?" He's always trying to learn something.
"Jock Hutchison in 1947," Elbin said. "He was 62."
"Jock?" Watson said. "Wow." He was on a first-name basis with Hutchison, who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame last month.
One of the wonderful things about golf is that it lives in a time warp. Jock Hutchison grew up in St. Andrews in the Old Tom Morris era and won a British Open in 1921. Watson won his first British Open in 1975. Watson won a Western Open in Chicago in June '77. Jock Hutchison died in Chicago three months later. Hutchison was a fixture at Augusta. In other words, the two men overlapped. Next month Watson will play in a British Open. Matteo Manassero, the Italian golfing sensation, will be in the field too. He's 18. Watson is 3.4 times his age. Could Watson beat the kid? Of course he could. He can beat a lot of people. More to the point, the kid can shake the hand of a major winner (Watson) who shook the hand of a major winner (Hutchison) who shook the hand of the man (Morris) who just about invented major-championship golf.
Hutchison and Watson each have two Senior PGA titles. Hutchison won his first, as a kid in a wool suit at age 53, at the inaugural event in '37 at Augusta National. (Now that's how you start an event.) This year's edition, the 72nd, was played at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville. Valhalla was designed by Watson's friend Jack Nicklaus and is owned by the PGA of America. The course represents everything that's wrong with golf in America. It takes way too long to play. It's way too expensive to maintain. It's way too hard for ordinary golfers. But for the plus-4 crowd? Works for them.
Look at the peculiar, memorable history the place is developing. You probably recall how a native son of Kentucky, Kenny Perry, chatted it up in the CBS booth at the 1996 PGA Championship, when he might have been preparing for a possible playoff. Turns out there was a playoff, and Mark Brooks, the Texas shotmaker, beat Perry on the first hole. You probably recall the Tiger Woods--Bob May playoff at the 2000 PGA Championship, which Tiger won because that's what Tiger Woods did, back in the day. You probably recall Boo Weekley riding his driver like a hobbyhorse down the 1st fairway at the 2008 Ryder Cup, which the Americans actually won. And now there's a new clip for the Valhalla highlight reel: Watson, on Sunday, setting up his winning birdie putt with a beautiful shot from a greenside bunker on 18 and then running up the face of the trap on his artificial left hip. Running.
And that was after four long rounds on a muddy par-72 course, plus a pro-am round on Wednesday that clocked in at six hours and change. Valhalla last week was not a good walk. It was a slog, played with the ball down and dirty. Any golfer in the world—man, woman or child—would be proud to have made the scores Watson made: 70, 70, 68, 70, 10 under par. The level of the best golf last week was astonishing. Eger's closing 67 in a hot wind included a sawed-off mashie or something that was all art and skill and golfing class. Hale Irwin, older than dirt (well, 66 as of June 3) and tougher, too, was on the top of the leader board or close enough all week, pretty much. Kiyoshi Murota, a 55-year-old golf instructor and tour pro from Japan, was too, playing superb golf with a cranky back and a charming smile.
Bad backs come with the territory, but golfers really don't change. Nick Price (seventh last week) still makes those two quick stiff-wristed waggles before taking it back for real. Loren Roberts (tie for eighth) still makes that big shoulder-and-head tilt after his bugaboo shot, the push-slice. Irwin (fourth) still has that hyperefficient swing and walked around Valhalla with that cocky jock walk you can't learn in acting school. Talking about Dustin Johnson and Gary Woodland and the bombing brigade, Woods said earlier this year, "We're finally going to get athletes—guys who can dunk, guys who could have played baseball or could have played football at the D-I level." Huh? Irwin played football and golf at Colorado. He's been a stud all his life.
But the high priest of relentless consistency is Watson. He's hilarious. He talked last week about the big adjustment he made in his swing, how he was now sweeping it long and low on the takeaway. Surely he was describing what the swing feels like to him, but it's not what we rank amateurs see. Watson has a friend, Sandy Tatum, who likes to say, "Tom Watson has a swing that will not quit." Tatum, the former USGA president, is 90. He's been trotting out that line for about a quarter century now, and it couldn't be more true. In Watson's swing, the arms, big as drumsticks, go up and the arms go down and the ball goes in the intended direction, and Watson watches it with that cryptic semismile of his. Same as it ever was.
"I enjoy beating people," Watson said last Saturday night, when he trailed Irwin and Murota by a shot. "I enjoy the competition. I enjoy getting in the hunt and having a chance to win a golf tournament. And that's me. It defines me. And I still am very fortunate to have the forum in which to conduct my career. And that is the Champions tour. The Senior PGA Championship of the Champions tour."
It sounds grand, when Watson says it, as it should, coming from a man who won five British Opens, two Masters, one U.S. Open. Plus three Senior British Opens. And, of course, his two Senior PGA Championships on the Champions tour.
Jeff Sluman has one major, a PGA Championship, which is the missing piece from Watson's career grand slam. (He lost in a playoff to John Mahaffey in 1978.) At a dinner during the British Open some years ago Watson said to Sluman, jokingly, "I'll trade you two of my [British] Opens for your PGA." As if he were playing Monopoly.
"I would have liked to have won the real PGA Championship, but this is a great substitute for it," Watson said on Sunday night. So Watson doesn't have that one neat, super cool line on his résumé—winner of the career grand slam. But what about this? He was playing world-class golf in 1975. Thirty-six years later he still is.
Nicklaus is the king of longevity. He won his first professional major in 1962 and his last in '86 and 16 in between. He semidominated senior golf without showing up all that much. Woods, in a press conference last week, commented (admiringly) about how long it took Nicklaus to get to 18 majors (24 years). Viewed that way, Woods said, he had plenty of time to try to get to 18. (He has 14 in 15 years.) The king of golfing longevity is Sam Snead, who won a Tour event at age 52 and contended in majors in his 60s. But what became clear last week is that Watson is just a notch below Snead in the longevity department. As for Irwin, attention must be paid to him, too. To do what he did at the edge of 66? That's crazy. "I don't know what retire means," he said last week.
No golfer does. It's a new thing in the game, players announcing their retirement. Lorena Ochoa did it, and so did Annika Sorenstam, but they could be back. You don't know. Arnold Palmer retired and returned more times than Freddy Krueger. An old slogan of the PGA of America is that golf is "the game of a lifetime." Which it is. Look at Eger. He was a good amateur. He was a mediocre pro. He became a well-regarded tournament administrator at the USGA and at the PGA Tour and returned to amateur golf. Then, with 50 looming came a second stint as a pro. And then came last week, at 58, when he nearly won the granddaddy of all the senior majors. He's a better golfer now than he was 10 years ago. That's amazing. You can do that in golf.
Eger said he tired in the last round. Watson said he did too, but there was less evidence of it. Still, Eger got himself in an enviable spot, standing on a green in a playoff in a major with one of the greatest players in the history of the game. "It's the ultimate mulligan in life for a golfer to be able to come out here and play, and play reasonably well at times, and compete with the likes of Tom Watson and Hale Irwin and wonderful great players who I watched from a golf cart," Eger said.
The last time Watson was in a playoff for a major title was at Turnberry at the British Open in 2009, when Stewart Cink took the day and crushed a million Lipitor-aided hearts. In that playoff Watson looked physically drained. Sunday at Valhalla, when he ran up the face of that bunker, was a different matter. Watson was asked what the difference between the two playoffs was.
He was nervous both times. You're always nervous, he said, trying to win a major championship.
"Well, I was in control of this one," Watson said. "I guess. A little bit." He knows what we know. Golf is a game of a lifetime. You just keep knocking. Maybe the ghost of Jock Hutchison will show up on the other side of the door. Or the humongous Senior PGA Championship trophy. At Turnberry, Watson couldn't get the putt to win to drop. At Valhalla he could. Time is your friend in golf. Especially if you have a body and a swing that will not quit.
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