It’s July 19th, 2009 at the Ailsa Course in Turnberry, Scotland. Tom Watson stands over his approach shot to the 72nd green of the Open Championship. He holds a one-shot lead over American Stuart Cink, who has long since finished his round. All Watson needs is a par and he’s won his sixth British Open – at the age of 59.
The feat would make him by far the oldest major champion in golf history. There’s no such thing as an unbreakable record, especially not in sports, but this would be pretty close. The record is currently held by Julius Boros, who won the 1968 PGA Championship at 48.
This approach shot would be relatively straightforward if not for the circumstances. Watson hit an excellent drive to the center of the fairway and has a mid-iron in hand. The flag is unguarded by anything other than a bit of wind, just a light breeze by Scottish standards.
Watson has always been known for his aggressive playstyle. He might be a little long in the tooth, but great athletes never lose their killer instinct. He aims directly at the flag and hits a crisp iron shot that looks good from the instant it takes flight.
He watches the ball track toward the green, the weight of the moment showing in his tense expression. The ball hits hard, rolls past the hole, and dribbles off the green and into a thick band of rough. The tournament isn’t over by any means – Watson is more than capable of getting up and down for par. Failing that, he could still win in the four-hole playoff to follow.
But the look on Watson’s face says otherwise. When you’ve been doing this for as long as he has, you know when the golfing gods have abandoned you.
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Watson has plenty of experience in these situations – he’s won eight major championships, including five British Opens. In fact, Watson won the 1977 British Open at this very course, overcoming Jack Nicklaus in an epic battle that came to be called the “Duel in the Sun.” In 2003, the Turnberry Resort renamed the 18th hole after this legendary clash.
Another British Open victory at Turnberry, 32 years after his first, would give Watson a record-equaling six titles in the event. Only Harry Vardon, who won his 6th British Open in 1914, has as many. Watson’s legacy is already secure – he was inducted into the Golf Hall of Fame in 1988 and further grew his legend in 1993 when he captained the United States to a hard-fought Ryder Cup victory on British soil.
Winning the British Open at 59, however, would give Watson what ambitious professionals in any field crave: a chance to stand alone in history.
Watson finds himself in this position not through the struggles of other competitors, but through a full week of great performances. He shot a flawless 65 in the first round, ending the day only one back of Miguel Angel Jimenez. While Thursday had seen clear skies and little wind, Friday brought classic blustery British Open conditions. Many less-experienced links players struggled, but Watson grabbed a share of the lead with a one-under 70.
To the dismay of many players (though not, one suspects, Tom Watson) the conditions on Saturday were just as difficult. Second-round co-leader Steve Marino could only manage a 76, while Watson fought to a one-over 71. He held a one-shot lead over Ross Fisher and Matthew Goggin going into the final round. Now even the staunchest doubters were beginning to believe.
The conditions today, predicted to be testy for the third day running, have been relatively mild. This hasn’t lead to lower scores, at least not from the majority of the contenders. Goggin, Fisher, and Lee Westwood have all thrown away their chances. It is, after all, the final round of a major championship. The pressure is enormous. Watson has hung in there, retaking the lead with a birdie at the 71st after losing it early in the day. Even the wily old veteran, however, seems to be feeling the heat on the 72nd.
Watson, old-school links player that he is, decides to putt it out of the rough. It’s a sensible choice – he’s drawn a perfect lie and pulling off a bump-and-run chip to a green that has just rejected a well-struck approach shot is a daunting prospect. But Watson has lost his touch. He whacks the ball stiffly and watches as it rolls 10 feet past the hole. He’s left himself the sort of putt you don’t want to have when a major championship is on the line – a mid-range tester that could break either way.
The magic has well and truly gone – Watson blocks the putt well right. He taps in for a devastating bogey. A four-hole playoff with Stewart Cink looms over him as he shakes Goggin’s hand and walks to the scorer’s tent.
Few players have thrown away an opportunity to win a major in regulation and rebounded to win in the ensuing playoff. Of course, Tom Watson may prove the exception. After all, he’s had a career that would be the envy of most pros.
But just look at the man standing on the 5th tee. He’s staring out into the distance, a wistful expression on his face. Sure, he’ll give the playoff his best shot, but he’s already thinking about what might have been.
At first, though, it seems Watson may have rebounded after all. He hits first and puts a perfect tee shot in the middle of the fairway. Cink responds in kind.
Both players leave their approach shots in greenside bunkers. Cink goes first and hits a solid blast to eight feet. Watson leaves his shot 40 feet short. It seems his poor approach was more than an isolated mistake. Watson lags his putt to within a foot and taps in for bogey, but Cink makes his par putt to take the initiative.
Both players par the next hole, but things go downhill rapidly for Watson on the third playoff hole. He hits his drive on the par-five 17th into some of the thickest rough on the course and fails to reach the fairway with his second. He makes double, Cink makes birdie, and the engraver gets to work on the Claret Jug. Cink makes birdie to Watson’s bogey on the 18th, but it’s all academic at this point. Watson loses the four-hole playoff by six shots.
Many players would have been finished as competitive golfers after such heartbreak, especially at Watson’s age. However, he would go on to win tournaments on the senior tour in each of the next two years, including a Senior PGA Championship win in 2011 at the age of 61. This made him the second-oldest golfer to win a major championship on the senior tour, behind only the great Gary Player. One suspects that this did little to heal the wound from 2009.
In a 2012 interview with Charlie Rose, Watson said of his 2009 near-miss “I was distraught.” However, he was able to put things into perspective, something a younger man may not have been able to do. “…The one good thing that came of that was the response of people around the world,” he said.
While he may have just missed out on making history in 2009, Watson is and will always be a legend of the game and a great ambassador for the sport.