Dream nearly becomes reality

All week, Tom Watson took time to reflect on what he was trying to accomplish at the British Open.

All week, Tom Watson took time to reflect on what he was trying to accomplish at the British Open.

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This story originally ran in the July 25, 2009 issue of Golfweek, and won second place in the Golf Writers Association of America’s annual writing contest for non-daily columns.

• • •

TURNBERRY, Scotland – A crazy dream drifted my way the other day. Fitting, because here on Scotland’s rugged yet scenic Ayrshire Coast, it was a terrific week for dreaming. Anyway, here’s a wild one that crossed my pillow: It’s Thursday, and Tom Watson is one shot off the lead at the Open Championship.

Preposterous, right? Well, it really shouldn’t be, because he has been up there before. Plenty. Five times he has stood on the 18th green, from Carnoustie in Scotland to Royal Birkdale in England, and been introduced as The Champion Golfer of the Year. Pretty heady stuff.

But now he is 59, and spends time on that “other” tour, and sees movies on an AARP discount. The nerves are frayed, the courses too lengthy and those 5-foot comebackers no longer do chest-thumps square into the back of the hole as they did when he was 35. Shoot, the guy led the field in artificial hips (1). Yet there was Watson on opening day of his 32nd British, the winds off the Irish Sea little more than a whisper at Turnberry’s Ailsa Course, and he’s shooting 5-under 65. A nice little first-day story, we call it. Watson even suggests a headline: “Old Geezer leads Open.”

“So how am I going to do?” he asked. “That’s what you all want to know. How am I going to do the next three rounds? Well, I don’t know. I don’t have a clue what I’m going to do. I wish I could tell you.”

And then I went back to sleep.

• • • 

It’s Tuesday of Open week, a practice day, and Watson, who won the 1977 Open at Turnberry in the famed Duel in the Sun, is playing with another legend, ’86 Turnberry champion Greg Norman. They are joined by Open first-timers Daniel Gaunt and Jeremy Kavanagh. Kavanagh had been in the players’ lounge Monday, saw a sign-up sheet, noticed Watson-Norman together and affixed his name. Why not? That’s like showing up on Karaoke Duet night and signing in next to Sinatra.

The night before the round, Kavanagh heads up the coast to Ayr Racecourse, where the horses are running. He misses the first race but smiles when he notes the first horse in the next race: Whaston. Close enough.

“When I first looked, I thought it almost said, ‘Watson,’ so I bet £5 on the horse at 16 to 1 (odds),” Kavanagh says. “He wins.”

Walking down the first fairway at Turnberry the next day, the young Englishman shares his story with the five-time Open champion. Whaston, huh? Watson turns to the kid, flashes that gap-toothed smile and says, “Maybe that name’s got a lucky ring to it this week.”

A good hunch. Sunday, Kavanagh walked with Watson’s gallery. He did not want to miss history.

• • • 

It’s 4 a.m. Saturday, and I’m awakened in our rented countryhouse in the working-class town of Girvan. It’s not the scent of the distillery down the road, nor is it the nearby seaweed factory. Another odd dream has stirred me: Tom Watson is the midway co-leader at the 138th Open.

Preposterous, right? I mean, this was the day the winds swirled and the course showed some teeth and all of the Open pretenders were to be swiped out to the Irish Sea. That would include all 59-year-olds. Heck, another guy from Stanford, the No. 1 player in the world, unleashed two poor 3-woods and suddenly was packing for Florida.

But Watson is strategically plotting his way around Turnberry. Again. He makes five bogeys on the front nine but recovers nicely, shooting 32 coming home. A bomb across the green vanishes into the cup at the final hole, and the crowd is on its feet, saluting this small but sturdy man whom they’d adopted some 34 years earlier at Carnoustie.

This is storybook stuff. The oldest man ever to win the Open was another Old Tom, that one Old Tom Morris, who was 46 years, 99 days when he won the champion’s belt at Prestwick in the ’60s. That would be the 1860s. Oldest man to win any major? Julius Boros, who won the PGA at 48. You just don’t shatter an age record by 11 years. That would be like running the 2-minute mile.

Luckily, it’s all just a dream.

• • • 

It’s Sunday, the wee hours, and I’m dreaming again. It’s Old Tom (Watson, that is) and he’s got a share of the lead through 54 holes. He’s teeing off so late in the day, he hardly knows what to do with himself. So he reads up on global climate. What’s the Open climate?

For Watson, very warm. Not in the brisk, chilled breezes of a Turnberry afternoon, but in support that wraps around him like a heavy Scottish shawl. Old Tom is winning the Open Championship. The crowd loves it. Young. Old. Everyone between.

“Toom,” they yell out to him in thick Scottish brogues. “You can do this, Toom!”

His cell phone is blowing up with messages. Barbara Nicklaus sent a text earlier in the week, triggering thoughts by Tom of how much he missed Jack. Watching his old pal shine half a world away brought tears to Nicklaus’ eyes. Watson’s peers from the Champions Tour are proudly pumped up. One message that touches his heart comes from a member of the Wounded Warriors. Forget those neck-high bunkers and 4-foot putts, it reads: Go have some fun.

“Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?” Watson says.

Fifty-nine is a magical number in golf. Al Geiberger. Chip Beck. David Duval. Annika Sorenstam. We’re talking golf scores. Not age. A 59-year-old cannot beat the young bucks. No way, no how. But people around Watson, like the man himself, are starting to believe.

“Amazing,” explains ’99 Open champion Paul Lawrie. “The golf ball does not know how old you are.”

This dream won’t end.

“Maybe he’ll get visited by the ghost of Harry Vardon tonight,” offers one longtime British essayist, pointing up the hill to Turnberry Hotel, where Watson is staying. Should Watson win, he’d tie Vardon with six titles.

Maybe he will get a visit.

• • • 

One last dream. Tom Watson leads by one and is standing in the fairway of the 72nd hole. He’s 59!!! He has 180 yards to the front. He holds an 8-iron in his hands. The swing is rhythmic, the strike is crisp, the shot sails solidly on its way toward a back pin. It’s 1977 again. As the ball flies under steely gray clouds, Watson watches, then tells his friend and caddie Neil Oxman, “I like it.”

This time, unlike ’77, the ball does not end up 3 feet from the flagstick. It pitches into the middle of the green, then releases, then cruelly trickles through the green. Links golf, played in the laps of the gods. He chooses a putter from short rough behind the green, and runs the shot 9 feet past. Nine feet between him and a sixth Claret Jug. Nine feet. There’s something spiritual at work here. Somewhere, late caddies Bruce Edwards and Alfie Fyles are watching. The stage is Watson’s, but his aged stroke betrays him. The ball doesn’t drop. For the first time all week, Tom Watson looks 59.

“I don’t know that any of us really believed last night that it would happen,” R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said later that evening. “We were all waiting for it not to happen. But, by God, it very nearly did happen, didn’t it? It would have been unparalleled in sport, really.”

Unparalleled in sport. Think about the enormity, and what Watson left behind on that green. Shame.

Before Watson departs in his courtesy Lexus to make the short drive to the hotel, he is asked to reflect on his “accomplishment.” This is where the five-time Open champion shows why he is a champion. Accomplishment? There is none. He left with the runner-up’s silver salver, not the Claret Jug.

“Extreme disappointment,” he says with great grace. “In my profession, when you have the chance to win the World Open, as I call it, and give it away – it’s disappointing.”

He adds wistfully, “It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn’t it?”

Actually, as the playoff ends, this story ends similarly to Turnberry 1977. Two champions. Only one trophy. And those of us who witnessed a performance for the ages are worn out.

Too much dreaming.

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