Kohler, Wis. - He paid his penance and absorbed his share of disappointments before he won his only U.S. Open title in 1982. Yet Tom Watson's quest to win the U.S. Senior Open has proven to be more profoundly frustrating - a conundrum that illuminates golf's uneven relationship with talent and purposeful execution.
But fate is another matter. Golf tries to remain tethered to unpredictability. It rests on vicissitudes as comfortably as it does on virtue. But it often succumbs to fate. The best player doesn't always win - unless he is meant to win.
Perhaps today Watson will have awakened with the calm that comes from knowing that the 28
thU.S. Senior Open belongs to him. He is deserving, and he appears ready to win, and he can almost feel like it is meant to be. He will arrive at Whistling Straits with a three-shot lead and with the abilities most acclimated to a wind-blown test of nerve and skill. He will arrive, too, feeling much like he did in 1982, when he chipped in for a birdie at the famed par-3 17
thhole at Pebble Beach Golf Links and eclipsed Jack Nicklaus.
"Maybe it's my time," he said Saturday night after a thrill-seeking 73 gave him a 7-under 209 total and a three-stroke lead over Loren Roberts. "Yeah, maybe it is time. Could be. Kind of playing like I did at Pebble; hit the ball in the rough a bunch of times, hit some pars. The first two rounds â€¦ I hit it terrible the first two rounds at the Open in Pebble. Finally found it on the range and it was easy after that."
It wasn't easy Saturday for Watson, but all but a few lucky early starters who ducked in before the wind got, well, huffy, had their struggles. But he grinded, made a few key pars, played like a man who knew what he was doing even if he was unsure how to do it.
His left hip hurts and his nerves long ago opted out of tournament golf, and yet he has won nine Champions Tour titles, including four major championships - two of them Senior British Open crowns to go with the five he collected in the Open Championship. He still can make a par from positions where others pout, which is how he maintained his advantage.
Thus, it is a mystery how he has not claimed the U.S. Senior Open. Three times he has finished second, including last year's edition at Prairie Dunes Golf Club in Hutchinson, Kan., the perfect place to end the drought for the Kansas City native, the home state hero. The script was so perfect that it couldn't possibly work. The insidious game conspired with Allen Doyle, and Watson, who has never finished worse than 25
thin this championship, limped back to Stillwell, Kan., wondering, after 37 years as a professional golfer, why talent alone doesn't determine outcome.
That's just the game, glorious and ghastly.
But today is poised to end differently. A three-stroke lead, the largest in the championship since Bruce Lietzke's four-shot cushion in '03, on a wind-swept, wicked, Pete Dye-decorated golf course seems made to order for the eight-time major champion.
"Watson is the perfect player for this type of golf," said D.A. Weibring, who trailed the leader by five strokes after a 74. "I think what he does best is he gets committed. He gets committed on every shot and picks his line and goes. And that's the way you have to play golf in general - but especially in tough conditions and with trouble everywhere."
"Obviously, we all know what he can do in the wind; he's a great ball-striker," Roberts said.
Only two men have successfully protected a 54-hole lead since the '04 Senior Open: Roberts and Watson, both at the Senior British Open. Only eight 54-hole leaders at the Senior Open since 1990 hoisted the trophy. Such trends suggest trudging into an historical headwind, but Watson always has seemed most comfortable amidst bluster.
Should he win, he will become the eighth player to claim both the U.S. Senior Open and the U.S. Open. He has the pedigree to belong in such a distinguished category. He has the game. The situation is ideal. Only the game itself, the game with no sense of conscience or sympathy, and his own ability to handle its vagaries stand in the way.
"It's who can deal with the problems the golf course gives you under the pressure that you're under. And under the pressure sometimes, it's different for different folks," said Watson. "Sometimes I can deal with it better than others. I just try to concentrate on the shot at hand, and that how I deal with the pressure. It's in the now."
And for all the world, it looks like Tom Watson's time is now to win the U.S. Senior Open. Watson would never say it's supposed to happen, and he probably doesn't even want to think it. But if he makes it happen, how will we know it wasn't just fate finally kicking in?
Dave Shedloski is a freelance weiter whose work has appeared previously on www.ussenioropen.com.