Memories of Tom Watson, golf’s greatest underdog
The Open was being played in England as this was written. The competition has been changed by one event that will stay in the golfing tapestry until the end of time.
One afternoon in 2009, everything changed. Tom Watson almost happened.
The sporting viewer requires two things in life.
The first is a dominant force that everyone has to chase. The likes of Federer, Tiger and the Canterbury Crusaders all show us how it should be done, and display levels of athletic and mental ability we could never achieve.
You watch because they appear to be super-human, otherworldly. They complete the improbable as if it were routine and create such a chasm in talent that when watched you cannot believe you are the same species.
The other is the underdog. We need these to create the illusion that we may still have a shot. That, in a sporting world full of physical freaks, an average man can still conquer, our own modern day David v Goliath.
2009 had the chance to fulfill this underdog urge for most of our lives. While the majority of the last 20 majors have been won by first-time victors, the year of 2009 was different; something happened to us, we became emotionally involved.
Tom Watson was 59; he had won his first Open 32 years earlier and he was playing against people who were the same age as his kids. He had no chance of winning; most of the younger generation had no idea who he was.
By the final round you would be forgiven for thinking that Watson was your uncle, granddad or even a father figure. His sultry quiet-spoken voice reminded you of your father reading to you as a child in an attempt to get you to sleep.
There was a comforting feeling to the way he spoke, a strong voice that, after the third round, told you everything was going to be ok. He was not going to be the Greg Norman of the year before.
He carried himself with a level of dignity and respect for the game that endeared him to you. He was a class act. Upon spraying an iron shot into the green side rough he would simply tap his divot back into place.
He would then hand the club to the caddy, smirk and walk on with his head bowed, hands in pockets and shoulders slightly stooped. He painted the perfect picture of an old man content with life taking an afternoon walk.
This made what occurred during those final three holes and the resulting playoff all the more painful. It was like having to put down Bambi. It was gut-wrenching.
Watching Watson see the lead slip out of his grasp, then lose the playoff, was the saddest moment in sport. It is not often that the winner of a major, Cink, is met with muffled applause and a sombre mood. The crowd was not begrudging Cink the victory; they had invested so much emotionally in the event that they too were worn out.
Upon losing, Watson still found humour and was gracious in defeat, showing the character of a man who the golfing world had fallen in love with over again. He walked into the press conference, saw sagging shoulders, glum faces, and broke the ice by saying “This ain’t a funeral, you know.”
In the space of four days Tom Watson took us on an emotional rollercoaster, and proved that age in golf, to a certain degree, may not be such a barrier.
Tom Watson reminded everyone why he was loved in the first place. His style, mannerisms and dry humour appeared to transcend generations. He is not only a great golfer but also someone who is a role model that the parents of young golfers parents would be content with.
Every time the Open is played, this moment, or lack of it, will be mentioned as both one of the greatest and worst moments in Open history.
Sadly the greatest story that could have been will become the greatest what-if. We did not get our fairytale ending, and our lust for the ultimate underdog continues, much like a surfer chasing the perfect wave. But what we got were memories of a man who almost blew up the sporting world.
Tom Watson can be summed up by his reaction to being asked why he did not change to a belly putter to improve his putting. He narrowed his eyes, gave the Tom Watson stare that had been directed at the likes of Jack Nicklaus and said, “It’s not golf”.
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