I never had the opportunity to watch Tom Watson in his prime – I’m only 23. I’ve played my share of golf, watched plenty of it and yet I have neither enjoyed nor understood the game more deeply than when I watched Tom Watson play during the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry.
The week began like most British Open weeks do. I typically enjoy this tournament because of the unique conditions, links style of play, the opportunity to wake up early and spend my morning watching golf, and the recent exciting finishes that have occurred.
On Thursday morning, I was surprised to see that Watson had shot 65. But I knew that Tom still had game and Turnberry meant something special to him. So I watched the beautiful Ailsa course shine and I managed to get very little work done. It was a nice opening Thursday.
Friday came, and Tiger missed the cut. After somehow making two long putts on the 16th and 18th holes, Watson jumped into a tie for the lead. Saturday ended with another strong finish and Watson in the lead.
I barely slept that night. 7am came and I was planted on the couch, expecting to be disappointed but holding out for a miracle. I watched as big names slipped and other names didn’t make moves. I watched Watson finally get his round going with a shaky pull into the left bunker for an opening bogey and followed it with a bogey on the third. I hoped it wasn’t over already. The putts appeared tentative, the magic wasn’t quite there, the cheery confidence was reduced to a mild grin. Even Jack Nicklaus got on the phone and talked about how the hands go numb at this point for the old guys.
But the guy somehow hung in there. A tough bogey on the 9th after a missed drive was forgotten after the first big Watson moment on Sunday: a big birdie putt that dropped on 11.
After an action-packed back nine, Watson came to 18 with a one-shot lead. A perfect drive. The gallery and millions more cheering the miracle just waiting to be sealed. He just needed to get down in 3 from 187 yards, downwind. He hit his 8 iron a little too well. The putt from just over the green was too strong and we all saw the miserable par attempt.
I was crushed. I hoped for a miracle in the playoff but the magic and the momentum had vanished.
That night, I was nearly in tears. Over the past 4 days, I’d fallen for Tom Watson – his timeless swing, his feel for the game, his easygoing demeanor, his walk, his talk, his patience, his calm, his cool.
It took me days to put together my thoughts on what I’d seen. I tried to figure out why this tournament had such an impact on me, why watching this guy lose a major on the last hole was more special than all the guys who have actually gotten it done, let alone all the other guys who have fallen apart.
I came to realize what mattered to me wasn’t the blown putt at 18 or how this came so close to being the biggest sporting accomplishment I’d ever witnessed. This was about more than the history books to me, about more than boasting that I watched Watson win the Open at the age of 59. I realized that more than at any other time, I had a clear sense of what I really appreciated about the game of golf.
I’ve played golf since somewhere around the age of 13 or 14. I played in some tournaments in high school and at the club level in college and have managed the rare recreational round since. Here and there I’ve even been pretty good. But mostly, I’ve viewed my golf “career” as a disappointment: my high school team missed the state tournament by a stroke my senior year in high school because I played a miserable round, I shot some awful scores while trying to walk on to the varsity team at Yale, and I’ve had some poor rounds of late, including an awful performance on Bethpage Black a few weeks ago where I somehow managed to even forget how to hit a simple chip shot.
Watson reminded me of what golf could be. You can play the game how you want – you can hit it high, you can hit it low, you can hit it from side to side, you can hit it straight down the middle. The course doesn’t care if you’ve won 14 majors or if you’re 59 years old or if you’ve picked up a club for the first time. An 8 iron into the 18th green that’s hit a bit too hard will probably go through the green whether you’re going for the greatest story in sports or you’re a 20 handicapper playing the best round of your life. The hole doesn’t care about the brand on your golf ball, the size of your club head, your spin rate, or how steep your swing plane is.
Tom Watson reminded me that golf is a difficult, relentlessly fair and beautiful game. It’s not about majors or handicaps, birdie or bogey. It’s just about hitting your ball as well as you can as few times as you need to. It’s about enjoying the walk, appreciating the challenges, keeping your head and controlling your heart, and making the best swing you can make.
Of all the rounds I’ve seen, of all the tournaments I’ve watched, I’ve never been more proud to be a golfer than after watching Tom play at Turnberry. I know that despite the most disappointing of disappointments, the challenge doesn’t get any more simple or less beautiful.
I just hope I remember all this the next time I’m at Bethpage.