|Coming off a crushing finish at the British Open, Tom Watson has soldiered on at the Senior British Open. (Steven Gibbons/USGA)
For 10 years, Tom Watson has been one of the prohibitive favorites at the U.S. Senior Open, and although he turns 60 years old in September, Watson once again will be among the players to watch next week when the 30th edition commences at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind.
In fact, he still might be considered the man to beat.
Such is the case when you take the best players in the world to school and come within an 8-foot putt of winning the world's oldest golf championship, the British Open.
Watson mesmerized the sporting world and inspired golfers and non-golfers alike last week when he nearly captured his ninth major title and sixth British Open Championship at the Ailsa Course at Turnberry, on the western shores of Scotland. The victor in an epic duel with Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977, Watson led after 71 holes Sunday afternoon, but he missed an 8-footer for par that would have made him the oldest major champion by more than 10 years. Instead, he fell into a tie with Stewart Cink, who easily claimed the Claret Jug in a four-hole playoff.
He might have fallen short at the 138th Open Championship, but the Hall of Fame golfer only rose in stature among his peers.
"I think what he did was phenomenal," Nicklaus, who was considered just about washed up when he won the 1986 Masters at age 46, told ESPN's Mike Greenberg. "I wanted to see one of the old guys do well, and he had a tremendous tournament. … His feat there was, if not better, then certainly equal to what I did [in the '86 Masters].
"He played well," Nicklaus added. "He was confident in what he was doing. I said, 'Tom, I know you feel bad about the playoff. Your tournament was over after 72 holes; you don't need to feel bad about the playoff. What you did no one your age has ever done before.' Watching Tiger Woods is like watching poetry in motion. I think last week Tom Watson was poetry in motion."
Said Scotland's Sam Torrance: "To me, it's right up there with the greatest sporting achievement of all time. It's unfortunate he didn't win it; then it would have been the greatest sporting achievement of all time. To get into that position and tie for the Open at 59, it was extraordinary."
Watson wasn't feeling extraordinary, choosing to downplay the significance of his efforts against golfers 20, 30 years younger. But numbers don't lie, not on the scoreboard, and not even in the Official World Golf Ranking. Watson's runner-up finish elevated him 1,269 spots in the world ranking, to 105th. That's the biggest one-week jump since the rankings began in 1986.
"I was just trying to win a golf tournament that I thought I could win, honestly. It wasn't anything more or less than that," said the former U.S. Open champion after posting his first top 10 in a PGA Tour event since 2002.
Brave façade aside, it was about a lot more than that to the man himself. Winner of five Champions Tour majors, including three Senior British Open titles, Watson admitted he suffered through a sleepless night on Sunday. Perhaps it was tougher to fall asleep after living such a wonderful dream for four days.
"My feelings still … they are bittersweet, I have to say," Watson said at Sunningdale, in England, where he is competing in the Senior British Open before heading to Crooked Stick. "I've always kind of lived my life out here on the tour. After a disappointment, it's onward to the next week, and forget what you did in the past, except to where it might help you play better golf."
Watson, owner of 39 PGA Tour titles and an additional 12 on the Champions Tour, has had his share of success. But that doesn't make the disappointments easier to bear. The U.S. Senior Open has been particularly unkind to the 1982 U.S. Open champ. Watson has finished runner-up three times, and he has finished in the top 10 in six of his nine appearances.
Two years ago at Whistling Straits, Watson led by three shots with nine holes remaining, only to crash home with a 43 and 6-over 76 to end up fourth while Brad Bryant triumphed. That defeat was simply another kick in the face after he lost to Allen Doyle by two strokes the previous year at Prairie Dunes Country Club in front of a highly partisan crowd in his native Kansas.
Quipped Loren Roberts, who ended his PGA Tour career last week at the U.S. Bank Championship at Milwaukee prior to heading to Sunningdale: "I belong on the Champions Tour. Not sure Tom Watson does, but I do."
The most dominant player after Nicklaus until Woods came along, Watson is truly a marvel. There are few players of any age – Woods included – who better understand the golf swing and how to consistently produce one of such elegance and precision. But no less impressive is his resilience. Watson, whose boyish features and gap-toothed grin have not withered, here offers a hint as to how he maintains an almost ageless game:
"Our Champions Tour, the senior tour, has kept me active in the game where I still compete," he said. "That's why I'm out here. I'm out here to compete and hit the shot that means something, and it still means something. It's not friendly golf; it's the shot that means something. You only do that in competition.
"It reminds me of when I was a kid, when I went out and played when I was 9 years old, 8 years old, playing in a competition. I still get the same out of it, I still get the same joy out of it."
Sounds like a man who might be getting older but is staying young at heart.
He'll try to muster another run at the U.S. Senior Open. Last year at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo., Watson finished in a tie for 23rd, 13 strokes behind winner Eduardo Romero. In the 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick, he shot 74-75-149 to miss the cut. But expect him to be prepared, if a little jet-lagged.
"I'm going right from here to Crooked Stick," said Watson when asked at Sunningdale about taking time off.
And the U.S. Senior Open represents something worth preparing for. "I've won the Senior PGA," said Watson, whose only other hole in his major resume is the PGA Championship, and, by extension, the career grand slam. "The Senior Open is the other one I'd like to win the most on the Champions Tour."
By the time he arrives in Indiana, he will have played more days in a row than most regular tour golfers. It would be understandable if he were running on fumes. But if you thought that a player of Watson's caliber would long ago have exhausted desire, or discipline, think again.
The young boy is still in there.
"It's just too much in your blood. It just is," said Watson of the frustrating but fulfilling pursuit of championship golf. "The competition is too much there. And we have the only game where you can continue. Why not take advantage of it and do it?"
Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on www.ussenioropen.com.