There's Poetry in Tom Watson's Near Miss

The 138th British Open, played at Turnberry in South Ayrshire, Scotland.
By Thomas Boswell
Monday, July 20, 2009

Sport is one method by which mankind tests the limits of our humanity. On Sunday at the British Open, Tom Watson almost redefined us all.


That he did not win a sixth Open, yet came so close, that he lost with such resolute composure, then refused to accept the most glorious near miss in the history of modern sports as anything but a defeat, only raised his achievement to a different, but not lower, place of honor.

The Irish poet W.B. Yeats, no offense to Scotland intended, wrote when he was 63 years old, "An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, unless soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing for every tatter of its mortal dress."

At 59, Watson sang louder and longer than anyone ever has in any of our games. He carried the solo part for 71 holes and nearly four full days of golf. They still play all 72.

At the 18th hole at Turnberry, site of his "Duel in the Sun" win over Jack Nicklaus 32 years ago, Watson ran out of notes and luck. A shot into the final green that seemed almost perfect, sure to leave a 25-foot two-putt for victory, was carried by wind and adrenaline, just over the back crest of the green, down a hill into an unpredictable lie.

Bogey followed, then a playoff. Sure as the dying daylight, even in Scottish latitudes, Watson reached his 60th birthday two months early, going bogey, par, double bogey, bogey for a ludicrous six-shot loss to Stewart Cink.

After Watson putted out to end his day, he lifted one hand, but did not raise it even as high as his shoulder to acknowledge his ovation, one visible in Scotland but easy to imagine around the world. Then Tom shrugged to the grandstands (sorry, couldn't quite do it) and lifted the arm again to the same low height. Now the reason was clear. Watson did not lack the energy to raise his arm like a victor; he just had too much class. Though the moment in almost every sense belonged to him, he refused to steal it from Cink.

"It would've been a hell of a story, wouldn't it? It wasn't to be. And yes, it's a great disappointment. It tears at your gut, as it always has torn at my gut. It's not easy to take," Watson said. "I put myself in position to win, but I didn't do it on the last hole."

Most sports events have a dateline. A few, these days, take place simultaneously all around the earth. This was the latter. Millions will remember where they witnessed this Open and, perhaps, what curses they spewed or furniture they broke when Watson's eight-foot putt for victory was struck with a horrid yipping stroke, the flaw that's plagued him for 15 years, producing a miss as grisly as his demographic might predict.

I watched Watson for hours on TV in a baseball press box. An executive Watson's age said, "I've been explaining to my family. There's just never been anything like it." You break significant records by tiny margins. Baseball cheaters aside, you don't dwarf them. Only one parallel to what Watson nearly attempted, something utterly beyond odds or imagination, comes to mind: When Bob Beamon broke the Olympic long jump record in '68 by 21 3/4 inches, it was said he'd "jumped into the next century." His mark stands.

Had Watson won, he would have been the oldest winner of a major champion by 11 years. The closest "comparison" is so ridiculous it underlines the point. Nicklaus finished a remote sixth in the Masters at 56 and was hailed. Ben Hogan is still praised for a 66 at the Masters in his golf dotage. Watson had an up-and-down from off the 18th green to win.

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