Perhaps you remember Tom Watson from about a year ago, shuffling around the Broadmoor Golf Club at the 2008 U.S. Senior Open.
If you were lucky, as thousands were, you enjoyed seeing the aging redhead, who was still able to put together some quality shotmaking, just not so consistently anymore. After all, he was 58 last summer, a quarter-century after his last major championship, and most golf historians felt sure that Watson had passed the point where he could challenge for one last significant title at the senior level.
He had come close to winning a few Senior Opens since turning 50, but had to "settle" for three Senior British Open victories. But that seemed more appropriate anyway for the unimposing (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) golfer who long ago had stamped himself as one of the greatest players on the United Kingdom's links-style, seaside courses.
Watson knew his place in today's world, that of a respected relic who would bask in the crowds' affection before gracefully moving offstage for the Saturday and Sunday rounds. That's how it was last summer in Colorado Springs, when Watson yo-yoed to rounds of 69-74-69-75 for a 287 total, 7 over par, tied for 23rd place, 13 shots behind winner Eduardo Romero.
Then, away from the headlines and media attention last fall, Watson went through what happens to many 58-year-olds — a hip replacement. As for so many others, it gave him a new outlook and a new bounce in his step.
But nobody knew what else it gave him — until last weekend.
On the rolling fairways of Scotland's Turnberry, where he had won his most memorable British Open victory in 1977, Watson turned history and logic upside down at the 2009 Open Championship (the official name for the "real" British Open). He fired a first-round, 5-under 65, just one shot off the lead, and then never faded away. He stayed in contention when today's biggest superstar, Tiger Woods, missed the Friday cut. Watson persevered through Saturday, as other 30-somethings from across the world fell by the wayside, and he took a one-shot lead into the final round.
And no, it wasn't a fluke. How could it be? Watson was playing the same course as everyone else, churning out drives down the middle, bouncing his approaches into position and making par after par after par around the occasional birdie — the way major titles are won.
Stubbornly refusing to let this dream end, Watson battled through Sunday, serenely conquering pressures he hadn't felt since he was one of those 30-somethings. The TV folks marveled at his swing, as smooth as ever and with more elasticity than before that hip replacement.
In the end, he needed just one more par at the 18th. Nerves didn't get him, but adrenaline did, as he crushed an 8-iron that bounced past the flag and over the green. He putted back to about 8 feet from the cup, one last par putt for an unfathomable accomplishment. And finally, after 71 holes and 276 shots without cracking, Watson froze — and the putt never had a chance. That dropped him into the four-hole playoff against Stewart Cink, but suddenly the dream and the magic were gone.
Within two days, Watson's feat was old news. He'll go back now to where he was, trying for one more Senior British Open this week at England's Sunningdale, then returning home for the 2009 U.S. Senior Open at Crooked Stick outside Indianapolis. He'll be the top attraction again, as he should be.
But nobody should downplay what Watson just did. He came within one putt of winning another major, just seven weeks from his 60th birthday. The comparisons are tough, but think of it like John McEnroe or Martina Navratilova coming back now to win one more time at Wimbledon. Or Lance Armstrong winning yet another Tour de France — 20 years from now. Something that remarkable.
The win-or-else sports world won't give Watson his proper due. But surely golf aficionados will never forget what Tom Watson did last weekend, something that nobody before him — not Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead or anybody else — ever came close to doing.
Even finishing second at Turnberry, Watson truly gave us a performance for the ages. And that's how it should be remembered ... forever.
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