PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland. When the career of Tom Watson is reviewed there’s little doubt that the initial focus will be on his magical chip in at the 17th hole at Pebble Beach during the final round of the 1982 US Open. It was that moment when the Missourian edged out Jack Nicklaus and earned his first and only win in America’s national championship.
However, right behind that success is a moment where Tom came up short — barely. At the 2009 Open Championship played at Turnberry ten years ago, it was a rewinding of the tape as a 59-year-old Watson demonstrated vintage play. As he approached the 18th hole on the final round the situation was clear – make par on the final hole and he would claim a record tying 6th Open Championship win.
Watson had driven the ball superbly all week and followed suit with a drive splitting the fairway. Now, a final approach was the only thing he needed in concert with two putts and the Claret Jug would once again be heading to Tom’s house. Watson chose an 8-iron and hit it crisply — the ball landing near the pin but instead of checking upon impact hit hard and bounded just over the putting surface.
Watson attempted to putt the ball from 30 feet as the ball was wedged between the two cuts of grass. His bold effort went 8 feet by. Unfortunately, the putt for the win was poorly played and never had a chance. Watson was in a playoff with Stewart Cink and the result was quickly over as Watson’s magical run quickly evaporated.
It’s been ten years since that moment but the effort displayed by Watson is still no less impressive. A victory would not only have been among golf’s greatest achievements but surely would have been among the most striking in all of recorded sports given Tom’s age. A win at age 59 would have shattered the still standing record set by Julius Boros when claiming the 1968 PGA Championship at 48. Think about that. Watson would have set a new record over a decade apart.
Even more impressive had Tom won — his ’09 victory would have come 32 years later after his tour de force mano a mano win against Jack Nicklaus — the famous “Duel in the Sun.” Other golfers have won twice at the same major championship venue — among them Nicklaus and Tiger Woods — but no where near the gap in time that Tom would have accomplished at Turnberry.
Golf is one of the few sports where a gifted player can be successful — even if age is against them. The remarkable win by Nicklaus in 1986 at age 46 when claiming his final major and 6th Masters moved sports fans — not just those who follow golf.
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Interestingly, just a year prior at the ’08 Open at Royal Birkdale, it was a 53-year-old Greg Norman who had the outright lead going into the final round. Unlike Watson though, the Shark sank in the final 18 holes with a concluding 77 and a tie for 3rd.
After Cink was announced as “the champion golfer of the year” and presented with the Claret Jug it was Watson who met the assembled press and declared, “It would have been a helluva story.” Watson candidly admitted the loss would burn within him for quite some time. However, the near fairy tale ending showed in clear terms what a golfer of Watson’s caliber can do when competing on a layout where the air and ground games are essential. The Open Championship is likely the only major event where the prowess of shotmaking — not just dominance via prodigious length – can be successful.
For Watson the return to the spotlight reinforced his storied career. The 8-time major champion bolstered his stature as likely the finest links player in the modern era. Although Watson did not win the PGA Championship to complete the career Grand Slam, it’s likely an Open championship victory at age 59 would have pushed his overall standing among golf’s greatest all-time players further up in the top ten position.
One of the more interesting elements is how better prepared younger players are when coming into professional golf. For Watson the learning curve to win on the PGA Tour took a bit of time. He often mentioned that in order to win he needed to know how not to lose. It will be most interesting to see the next time a golfer who is 50 and beyond is in the position to break the Boros record and claim a major championship title.
This week’s Open at Royal Portrush marks another glorious chapter in the game’s oldest and most enduring event. Ten years ago a 59-year-old man nearly made the impossible happen. As Tom said so succinctly, “It would have been a helluva story.”
Indeed it would have been.