From True/Slant on July 22, 2009:
Still Basking in Tom Watson’s Glow
The summer of 2009 is shaping up to be unlike any summer I can remember, the season that will be remembered for the runners-up more than the winners, for the guys who won us over in defeat. It’s a pretty nifty trick.
First, sentimental favorite Kenny Perry came in second at the Masters. Then Phil Mickelson (and David Duval, for that matter) fell short at the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black. There was Andy Roddick’s epic match at Wimbledon that turned Roger Federer’s way after way too many hours at Centre Court. All of them were sentimental favorites, all of them were game and each one fought and scrapped until the bitter end, only to come up a hair shy.
But none of those guys can hold a candle to Tom Watson’s magnificent, magical performance turned heart-rending as he fell just one stroke, just one short putt, shy of winning the Claret Jug at the British Open at Turnberry, Scotland.
The course itself was dramatic enough, set right on the sea, as vicious winds plastered players trousers to their legs, blew drives hither and thither, nudged putts willy-nilly, and even drove one Eldrick Tiger Woods so batty that he missed the cut. But the British Open was not about who wasn’t there fighting through the back nine on Sunday, but rather, who was there.
And there was Tom Watson, a man born during the Truman Administration who was old enough to be drafted at the time of the Apollo 11 moon landing, sitting unexpectedly at the top of the leader board just a few months shy of his 60th birthday. Other golfers were visibly thrown off by the knee high roughs, bracing winds and rolling fairways, while Watson seemed to take it all in stride. The rhythm of his game never changed, his pace remained unperturbed. He got some great rolls. And some terrible ones. Through it all, he was as steady as a surgeon and about as methodical.
It seemed like Watson was going to break the spell of this, the summer of compelling ‘almosts’, until his putt rolled short on 18, and it all went to hell in the tie-break, giving the Open to Stewart Cink. Before that short putt, Watson’s fairway shot rolled long, longer than expected and longer than he hoped. Watson’s caddy, Neil Oxman told NPR’s Robert Seigel, “It’s just going to be what-ifs forever. What happens if we hit a nine-iron from the middle of the 18th fairway?”
Close only counts in horse-shoes. To which an old college buddy added hand-grenades and dancing.
Maybe Tom Watson has shown that close counts in sports in this weird summer, 2009.
At the very least, close is what I’ll remember. No offense to a fine golfer like Cink, but in a few years, I won’t remember that he won the Open. I will remember the wind and the rough, the knee high, wheat colored grasses, the sea, the lighthouse and a sky that looked low enough that the caddies might have lifted the pins to reach up and touch it. Mostly, I’ll remember the most enthralling four days of golf in memory provided by a great champion. Even now, with the sports news cycle moving as fast as the speed of sound, I’m still lingering over Watson’s performance. Maybe this time, almost was good enough.