Monday, July 20, 2009

All Hail the Loser!

It was a monumental defeat that crushed millions of golf fans around the world!
by Charlie Leck

The 2009 British Open Championship will always be remembered by the golf world (meaning those of us who love and cherish golf and all its traditions and lore) for the golfer who lost it and not for the one who won it. That’s too bad for Stewart Cink, a terrific guy and a wonderful golfer who was introduced at Turnberry yesterday as the Champion Golfer of the Year.

But yesterday, as a dearly admired 59 year old stood out in the middle of the 18th fairway with a 9 iron in his hand, we all thought Tom Watson was both the Champion Golfer of the Year and the Champion Golfer of History.

Watson struck the shot cleanly and perfectly; perhaps he hit it too well. Had it but just a few feet less in distance to it, the Championship was his and it would have become the most startling and dramatic moment in golf history. Instead, Watson’s shot was just a bit too deep into the putting surface and it rolled over the back edge and down a steep slope. It stopped up against some thick grass that looked about 2 inches deep. A young Tom Watson would have clipped the ball neatly with some kind of wedge and maneuvered it, somehow, within a tap in distance from the hole.

That is exactly the problem a 59 year old has in trying to win any kind of golf tournament, no less one of the most important championships in all of golf. When Tom Watson took the putter out of his bag for that shot, I knew he was in trouble. His tired, jangled nerves could not handle the precision it would have taken to clip the ball cleanly with a wedge.

The shot that Watson chose required him to hit the ball up a steep hill for the first ten or fifteen feet over fairway length grass. When the ball then reached the green it would break slightly down hill and curl somewhat to the left. The higher grass behind his ball would definitely get in between the face of Watson’s putter and the ball.

How would he judge the strength with which the ball needed to be hit? That was the question.

Watching him out in the fairway, before he hit that 9-iron, there were tears in my eyes and my heart was pounding. I thought I was about to see one of the most incredible moments in sports history. A man near 60 was about to beat boys and men in their prime athletic years. I was nervous as hell for him. I could see that he was masterfully keeping himself under control. He had done it for four consecutive days in good weather and bad, in windless and blustery conditions, and in sunshine and rain.

I found myself virtually praying: “One more shot!”

Then, when he hit it, I flinched and thought it was too neat, too clean, too completely perfect. I’d seen so many golfers roll over the backside of that green; and I knew how those players struggled to get the next shot close.

Watson’s recovery attempt put the ball 12 feet or so past the cup. To win, he had to knock in a putt. It is, however, precisely this putt, of this distance and under this kind of pressure, that is his Achilles Heel. He didn’t just hit the putt poorly, but his stroke was astonishingly bad and embarrassingly jittery. It was the dreaded enemy of all golfers past their prime – the short putt.
Stewart Cink and Watson finished in a tie. They would go to a four hole playoff. I stood up in my silent living room and looked at the TV set. Only my dog heard me speak.

“Turn out the lights! The party’s over!”

Tom Watson looked like a character out of a Greek tragedy. He was exhausted and staggering. Life had seeped out of him. He was beaten – completely defeated. He had waged a spectacular war against reality – against human impossibilities – and he had nearly won. If only the golf gods had thrown a gust of wind against that perfectly hit nine iron and knocked it down a few feet short of where it actually landed.

There is no finer gentleman in the game of golf than Tom Watson and he took defeat with nobleness and dignity. His joy for Stewart Cink was genuine. Watson had won the Open Championship 5 times in his prime years and he knew what Cink was feeling.

Watson’s greatest victory in golf came in the Open Championship of 1979 in a tough game against Jack Nicklaus on the very golfing grounds on which he lost yesterday. The encounter would forever after be known as the Dual in the Sun. It was a tough battle against a superb golfer under a bright, hot sun on that last day. Ironically, Watson would win it by knocking in a short putt on the final hole – the same putting surface on which, yesterday, he could not make the putt.

This year, however, Watson was battling only against himself and his own aged and frayed nerves and his own weary body. Unfortunately, he lost.

Millions of people must have been glued to their TVs as I was. They must have felt that same emptiness of heart and sorrowfulness of spirit that I felt. I have never before felt such deep grief for a defeated athlete as I felt yesterday for Tom Watson.

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