Monday, July 20, 2009

The Old Man and the Putter

Tom Watson will turn 60 next month, yet he led the British Open -- one of the four majors -- going in to the final hole. All he needed was a par to win. When Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at the old age of 46, people went nuts about how the old man turned back the clock, sent a message to the younsters, etc. Watson was 14 years older than Nicklaus. A 60-year-old is old enough to be a 46-year-old's father, especially back in the 1940s, when birth control was managed with lunar cycles and cod liver oil.

We were watching history unfold.

After making a birdie on the 17th hole, Watson simply needed to par the 18th hole to win the British Open. Of course, the 25 mph winds weren't making it easy. The old man stepped up and drilled the drive right down the middle of the fairway. If he could knock the second shot over the sand traps and onto the green, he'd win, causing the likes of Rick Reilly to wax profound. Watson's victory would join the pantheon of great Cinderella sporting events -- Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson, Bobby Thompson's Shot Heard Round the World, Villanova's win over Georgetown, Seabiscuit.

Watson addressed the ball, still refusing to look nervous. He swung smoothly. The camera focused on his reaction. He smiled, nodded his head, and seemed to tear up a bit, as if he'd come through in hitting the perfect shot. I pumped my fist. The camera then showed the ball landing on the green just past the deep sand traps. The ball hit hard, lurched forward and rolled toward the pin. It looked good. And then it rolled slowly past the pin, and just kept rolling slowly, slowly, Titleist 3, Titleist 3, until it rolled off the green and down a steep hill.

Instead of having an easy two-putt par for the victory, Watson now had to make a difficult up-and-down. I was surprised the announcers didn't make a bigger deal of Watson having to make the transition from thinking he had hit a perfect shot to getting out of trouble.

It reminded me of a tennis tournament I watched 15 or so years ago between Andre Agassi and Boris Becker. Agassi, at the peak of his "Image is everything" phase, was rolling along, up a set and a break. He said something playful to the crowd, and people laughed. Then Becker did something brilliant and brutal. He laughed sarcastically and glared at Agassi. When the camera showed Agassi getting ready to serve, he looked ashamed, as if an older kid had just stolen his A-Team lunch box during recess. (Not that I'm still bitter about my A-Team lunch box being stolen. That has nothing to do with this. I don't even miss my A-Team lunch box.) Anyway, Agassi was never the same. Becker broke back, won the set, and then won the next two sets. The announcers, of course, failed to mention why the momentum switched. But I knew. And if I hadn't been watching the tennis match alone, anyone else in the room would have known, too.

With Watson's beautifully struck shot that bizarrely ended up in danger, I don't know if that made him fall apart. I think it did. In my mind, he never recovered from thinking he'd hit the winning shot. After that, he used his putter to chip it 8 feet passed the hole, and then his old man hands faltered badly on the 8-foot putt. He never had a chance in the 4-hole playoff against a guy who will be known forever as The Evil Stewart Cink.

What a sad loss. It proved that old people just can't do things as well as young people.

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