Last Sunday in Turnberry, Scotland, Tom Watson had one seven-foot putt left to sink: slightly uphill, with a moderate right-to-left break, complicated by a stiff wind in his face.
Standing on the 18th green, he held a one-stroke lead over his closest competitor—36-year-old American Stewart Cink. Drain that putt and the 59-year-old from Kansas City would win the British Open Championship. But there was more on the line than that. He was poised to triumph over the greatest golfers in the world—a world that had changed a great deal in the 26 years since he won his last major title. Where his game was refined in an era of wooden drivers and endless repetition, his rivals were reared in a sport redefined by graphite shafts, titanium club heads, nutritional supplements, psychologists and swing doctors.
But some things in golf never change, and those are the things that Watson never lost. For the first two days of the Open, Watson played alongside Matteo Manassero, a 16-year-old from Verona, Italy, who marvelled at the calm focus of a man almost four times his age. “Playing with Tom Watson, I grew up a little bit,” the teenager confided to reporters. Tiger Woods, the greatest player of his generation, maybe of all time, failed to even make the cut. After two days of seeing shots blown hither and yon by Scotland’s unforgiving gusts, Woods had to pack up his clubs and go home. So did Canadian Mike Weir, and hometown hero Colin Montgomerie.
After 71 holes Watson stood ahead of them all, with 84 inches of turf between his ball and victory. In that putt he held the vain hopes of every person who has ever suffered seeing natural ability eroded by the passage of time. That putt held out the possibility that calm experience can win out over strength and raw athleticism. It implied that if you stay in top physical shape, as Watson has, that if you maintain the competitive drive of a champion, and refuse to meekly accept the withering effects of age, then they can be overcome—even in the face of overwhelming pressure and the worst conditions.
As he lined up the shot, all those thoughts were running through our minds. And somewhere deep down, they must have been running through Watson’s mind, too.
He missed. A little short, and a bit right. He lost to Cink in a four-hole playoff.
“This ain’t a funeral, you know,” a smiling but disappointed Watson told reporters later. “The old fogey almost did it.”
Yes, almost. The natural and obvious conclusion, drawn far and wide this week, was that Watson really was too old to pull it off, and perhaps it was foolish to believe otherwise. But his achievement over four days in Turnberry was stirring enough, and his margin of defeat tiny enough, that it still held out a glimmer of something important: the possibility that one day someone might come along and make us believe it’s possible again.