Pulling for a Miracle With Tom Watson

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July 19, 2009

Pulling for a Miracle With Tom Watson Millions tuned in Sunday to watch the end of the 2009 British Open at Turnberry. Most of them were rooting for 59-year-old Tom Watson. Most of them turned their TVs off after the fourth playoff hole, disappointed in the result.

It wasn't the case of the fans rooting for a guy who'd never won the big one before. No, Watson had eight major wins between 1977 and 1983. In fact, it was Watson's opponent in the playoff, Stewart Cink, who before Sunday had never won a major title on the PGA Tour.

No, it was the dream that (almost) wouldn't die. Watson, the oldest player in the tournament, was an afterthought prior to the first round. The talk centered on names like Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, Ernie Els and two-time defending British champ Padraig Harrington.

But instead it was Watson, the longtime Kansas resident, who fired an opening-round 5-under 65 to leave him tied for second after Thursday. On Friday, Watson was 4-over through seven holes before catching fire on the back, rolling in long putts on 17 and 18, to finish even on the day and tied for the lead at 5-under.

"The first day here, yeah, let the old geezer have his day in the sun, you know, [with a] 65," Watson said. "The second day, you said, 'Well, that's OK. That's OK.'"

Once he stayed in competition on Saturday, shooting 71 to stay narrowly atop the leaderboard, as Watson himself said Sunday, "you kind of perk up your ears and say, 'Hey, this old geezer might have a chance to win the tournament.'"

On Sunday, he was in it till the end. He had a makeable par putt on 18 — a putt he's made thousands upon thousands of times before — that would have closed it out. But he pushed it way right.

"Made a lousy putt," Watson said, and, wrote Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post, "that's just what it was, [a putt] that never had a chance. Though there would be a four-hole playoff, which Cink won in a romp, that really was the last meaningful stroke of the tournament."

Watson's performance was truly one for the ages ? but it was also one for the aged. In fact, one of ABC's commentators on Sunday wondered aloud, because of Watson's valiant play, just six weeks shy of his 60th birthday, how many middle-aged and senior golfers would get up off the couch next weekend, dust off their clubs and hit the links again hoping to reclaim some of that past golf glory.

After Sunday's round, a reporter asked Watson for an appropriate headline to recap Watson's day at Turnberry.

"A good headline?" Watson said. "'The Old Fogey Almost Did It.'"

But it wasn't just the age factor. It's that Watson is truly one of golf's all-time greats. With 66 professional wins, six PGA Player of the Year awards and membership in the World Golf Hall of Fame, he's really among the PGA's elite. In fact, it's a past triumph at Turnberry, in the 1977 "Duel in the Sun" with Jack Nicklaus, that could stand as Watson's most lasting memory. And it's partially that victory, 32 years before, that made him such a fan favorite.

"'I don't think you'd find anyone out here who wouldn't be pulling for Tom Watson,'" Scott MacLeod, a fan from nearby Ayr, told the Post. "'The 'Duel in the Sun' was such a big occasion. He's a good guy. He's not controversial. He's always smiling. If you went to the local clubs and pubs tonight, 99 out of 100 people would be for Tom Watson.'"

But why? What is it about the dude that makes you want to root for him?

The folksy Midwestern charm? The simple smile? The fact that after a great shot, he never celebrated wildly? The fact that after a crummy shot (of which he hit several during the four-hole playoff), his reaction was exactly the same?

All of those things.

But most of all, it was that a former champ had come out of nowhere to compete on golf's biggest stage. It would have been like the Jim Rice of today coming back to homer for the Red Sox off Roy Halladay. Or Larry Bird coming back to hit a game-winning three over LeBron James. These kinds of things just don't happen in sports.

But Sunday in Scotland, it almost did.

"It would have been a hell of a story," Watson said during the post-tourney news conference. "It wasn't to be.

"And yes, it's a great disappointment. It tears at your gut, as it always has torn at my gut. It's not easy to take."

Just imagine how tough it was for everyone rooting for you, Tom.

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