"Excuse me," Hale Irwin said, "I've got to go see Watson two-putt--and then cry."
Nobody was pulling harder for Tom Watson to make birdie from 20 feet on the 72nd hole of the British Open late today than the man quietly kneeling in front of a television, his back against a counter top. For if Watson made a routine par, and won by a shot, Irwin would surge into lore in a way he detests.
Imagine all the great goofs in sport, antilegends whose embarrassments outlive them by generations. To Willie Shoemaker misjudging the finish line at the 1957 Kentucky Derby, to Fred Merkle's blunder in 1908 that kept the New York Giants out of the World Series, to Billy Conn against Joe Louis, add Hale Irwin whiffing a putt that had to roll less than the length of this line of type for par on the 50th hole of the 112th British Open.
Irwin is one of golf's craftsmen. His reputation as a tenacious fighter who leaves little to chance on a golf course is based on more than $2 million in official money, more than a dozen PGA tour victories and two U.S. Open titles. The man who plays toughest on the toughest courses suddenly was in a duffer-like funk. He could have blown in that putt he blew on the 14th hole Saturday.
Here's the scene: Irwin is making a run at the leaders and leaves a birdie putt on the par-3 hole inches short. It's the sort of tap-in everybody backhands into the cup and sails on. Irwin missed. The ball might have caught cold.
"To be perfectly blunt," he recalled today, "I don't know what happened. I'm guessing it was a mental lapse. I also have a problem with depth perception, and it was getting dark. But the bottom line is that I made an error that at this point in time is very critical."
This point in time had Irwin in a press conference, tied with Andy Bean at eight under and that one damnable abomination behind Watson. How could such a thing happen?
Irwin finally took a stab at explaining it: "Apparently, I looked up. And in one motion the putter hit the ground, moved forward and over the ball. The intent (to hit it) was there. Soon as it happened (but after he in fact backhanded the ball in) I said to Terry (Gale, his playing partner), 'I made 4.'
"Don't read anything into it. I just missed. Very careless. Very often, I knock 'em in left-handed from three or four inches. I've done it hundreds of times. As it was going down, the putter hit the ground and popped over the ball."
Intent is elemental in golf, whiffs being rather common everywhere but on the green. A Washingtonian once tried to insist a miss of a fairway iron came during a practice swing.
"I'd have believed that," his opponent said, "except you grunted."
Irwin's bafflement, his fumbling the ball while plucking it from the cup, let everyone who saw it know he was not foolin' on that first fling. His almost never making even the most forgivable mistake magnifies this one so much more.
We need some perspective about now. To focus on one error so intently in a tournament in which he and Watson struck 276 and 275 shots respectively might seem illogical and unfair. Let's give Irwin that gimme. Who is to say that Watson, having seen Irwin in the clubhouse at nine under instead of eight, would not have birdied the 16th and 17th holes today? And still won by a shot?
That might well have happend, for Watson is a champion with a spirit and will even stronger than Irwin's. But after Irwin missed that few-incher, he bogeyed one of the easiest holes at Royal Birkdale, the par-5 15th.
Undoubtedly, that stunning stab cost him two (shots). Possibly even three. That he fought back to shoot four-under 67 today shows his own exceptional courage.
"Everybody can look back and see a shot he'd like to have back," Irwin said. "Maybe a seven-iron you didn't get enough of. But I just didn't make contact. I've stabbed putts. But that's the first one I've ever missed.
His colleagues were sympathetic.
"They all told me they'd done the same thing sometime," he said.
"I chugged (sic) one," he said. "But instead of very quickly dragging the club along and sweeping the ball in the cup it (the ball) went up in the air. I took a divot. That was when I was still qualifying (for the tour), in '73.
Now Irwin knows how poor Harry Bradshaw felt during the 1949 British Open. That Dubliner hit a drive on the fifth hole and the ball came to rest inside a beer bottle. Playing it where he found it instead of asking for the relief he was entitled to, Bradshaw belted the bottle and the ball flew only a few yards farther than the splintered glass.
He made double bogey.
In the 1921 Open at St. Andrews, Roger Wethered was walking backwards after studying his approach to the green on the 14th hole of the third round and "trod" on his ball. Cost him a penalty stroke. He tied Jock Hutchinson, then lost the playoff.
Worse things have happened on golf courses, although not in the British Open. D.J. Bayly once stepped into a bunker on a course in New South Wales and discovered it was quicksand. After reaching shoulder depth, he was pulled out by a companion. And in 1974, Ohioan Bob Russell took a practice swing and felt a searing pain in his leg. His clubhead had detonated a rifle bullet.
Just to reinforce the notion that nearly nothing new occurs in the centuries-old sport, Irwin's was not the first critical whiff in a British Open. In 1889 at Musselburgh in Scotland, Willie Park and Andrew Kirkaldy were on the back nine of their 36-hole playoff. On the 14th green, ironically, Kirkaldy's putt "stopped not more than an inch from the hole."
A golf reference book adds: "he made a one-handed stroke with his putter and missed entirely. This slip cost the title."
Irwin joined a select group of whiffers. Harry Vardon did that in the 1900 U.S. Open, although it meant nothing toward deciding the championship. Watson got a telegram of congratulatioins today from five-time winner Peter Thomson; Irwin ought to get one from Roberto de Vicenzo, who signed an incorrect scorecard that cost him a chance to get into a playoff in the Masters in 1968.
"I didn't bite myself," Irwin said. "But I kicked myself real hard."
When Watson's lag putt on 18 stopped inches short, when Watson carefully tapped it in, Irwin's face got hard. He rose and slid over the counter. Then he grabbed his wife Sally by the hand and strode off to the awards ceremony. Already, he knew what was coming, that every bit of carelessness by everyone who cherishes golf will be called "an Irwin."
He'll smile, but it won't be fun.