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There's Poetry In This Near Miss

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.

Almost.

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.

At an age that is the equivalent of 80 or 90 or who knows what (perhaps deceased) in jock years, even Watson's loss merely reconfirmed what he had already achieved. True, he's still fit, supple and hits it long. But the back of the man's neck looks like alligator skin. In profile, he has three chins. Then there's his neck. It's old.

We live in a time, like all others, that adores conventional outcomes, familiar emotions and compositions of feeling that do not surprise us but confirm our bearings. That, perhaps, is why Watson's "loss" is hard to digest, to measure, even to accept. If he were 39 or even 49, like Kenny Perry who bogeyed the 72nd hole of this year's Masters, then lost in a playoff, he could still use words like "squandered" to apply to Watson.

But we don't have the proper vocabulary to describe a 59-year-old who almost wins an event in which Tiger Woods can't make the cut. But Yeats did: "Bred to a harder thing than triumph, turn away and, like a laughing string whereon mad fingers play, amid a place of stone, be secret and exult."

Now, those of us who prefer to cherish Watson's attempt, not diminish it, can have the whole thing to ourselves. The mob will move on, disoriented, dissatisfied at being denied something simple to hail. Instead, we have harder things on which to chew.

Age wins again; it just refuses to go away. After his bogey at the 72nd, Watson's game fell apart in toto -- 4 over par in the playoff. The moral is merely to stand against it, ignore it and play above it as long as you can.

And miserable undeserved bad luck, like Watson's dead-flat-flushed approach to the 18th hole, when will it finally stop showing up to thwart the deserving? How much more charity work can Watson do, for his late caddie Bruce Edwards, or for decades in Kansas City? What kind of napping divinity allows such mischief, even in the devil's game? But the lesson is trickier. We're always responsible for ourselves. It never stops. Tom knows you always have to under-club coming to the house with a lead. You're always amped -- even when you're really, really old.

"What do I take from this?" Watson told the media afterward. "A lot of spirituality. There was something out there, I still believe that, that helped me along."

At the very least, it was the spirit of millions of people, not just in Scotland, who shared a rare moment when one man stood for us and pushed against the boundaries of age that we all share. Can you really change life's timeline by 11 years? Do we, each faced with our own challenges, have the capacity to expand our expectations that much?

Before this round, Nicklaus sent the first text message of his life, assisted by his always more-savvy wife: "Win one for the old folks. Make us proud. Make us cry again."

Don't worry, Tom, you did.

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