Kohler, Wis. - The consummate professional had just blasted out of a canoe-like greenside bunker at the 17
thhole at Whistling Straits late on Sunday afternoon, and after gingerly pulling himself out of the hazard, he massaged the sand with his wedge, smoothing it out for the next player who comes through, no matter that the next player wouldn't be along until the following day.
His hopes of winning the only senior major to elude him long ago scuttled in the strafing winds off Lake Michigan, the pro still grinded out a par there with a 15-foot putt, and when he arrived at the unforgiving 18
th, he still read his par and bogey attempts on two sides, seeking to preserve one more stroke, as if it really made a difference. But, of course, it did to him. And when he finally holed out for one more disheartening double-bogey, he didn't just touch the bill of his cap in some perfunctory manner. He doffed it with a display of genuine gratitude to the admiring crowd, and then the old golf pro bowed slightly with a grimmest of grins - but a grin nevertheless, instead of some vexing stare.
|After a 43 on his back nine, Tom Watson waves his cap to acknowledge the gallery. (Steven Gibbons/USGA)
Then he patiently answered all the questions, the ones that had to feel like a million pin pricks, trying best to explain how Brad Bryant had won the U.S. Senior Open and he - one of the most accomplished and skilled in the game's history - had once again been denied.
"And of course today was really scripted for Tom Watson," said Bryant. "The wind, the heat, it was really his day going out. You would think."
To watch Tom Watson fall apart down the stretch at the 28
thU.S. Senior Open was a gut-wrenching exercise. But to watch Watson hold himself together, remain a gentleman, conceal the rage that must have been kicking up inside him more turgidly than the oven-hot winds that swirled about him, was to witness a sublime interlude of grace and sportsmanship seldom seen in this era.
He lost, and we won.
The pain of a closing 6-over-par 78, low-lighted by an inward and unlikely 43, won't soon be ameliorated. He led by three strokes at the start of the day, and with birdies on nine and 10 pushed his advantage back to that margin. And then it all unraveled. Yet, in the midst of the slide that dropped the golfer to 1-under 287 and fourth place, five behind winner Bryant, the man didn't unravel, and, thus, will wake up Monday not having to apologize to anyone, not having compounded a poor day with poor behavior - childishness or churlishness or plain chump-ness - not having to march out his lawyer or spokesman to make excuses or spit out canards.
Would that Watson's clubs were as spot-on as his assessment of his day. "I guess you can write the story pretty easy when I make double-bogey at 11, par 5, which is reachable in two today, that was a real wake-up call right there that the golf course wasn't going to give in very easily," said Watson, 57, after his fifth top-five in the Senior Open. "And the bogeys on the next two holes, a lousy 3-putt at 12 and not getting the ball up-and-down from the back at 13 was kind of a harbinger for the rest of the day.
"I just didn't have it the back nine," he added bluntly a bit later. "I just put the ball in trouble way too many times to have a chance to win this golf tournament."
Loren Roberts, who played alongside Watson each of the last two days, was still swallowing his own disappointment when he was asked about Watson's fall. Roberts also has a grasp of adulthood, and so he thought for a moment. "You know, I was just trying to get my own game going, because I still had a chance, but, obviously, 11 just killed him," said Roberts, who won the Senior British Open last year. "He played so good for a stretch and then he had his struggles, but he handled it so well. He never gave up. He's still one of the best ball-strikers on any tour you name. I have the utmost respect for Tom as a person and a player."
As Roberts spoke to a handful of writers, Watson was still up on the makeshift stage where players field post-round questions from print and broadcast media, and the pro with the magnificent golf swing displayed one last glimmer of class. "He's always been Dr. Dirt," Watson said of the winner. "He's a fine player â€¦ he's got some game. He's got more game than I do."
Watson, of course, has eight majors among 37 PGA Tour titles and another nine Champions Tour wins. Few in the history of golf have had more game than him, but when a man is being magnanimous, and you see so little of it going around anymore, you let him go.
Andy North, who won two U.S. Open titles, drove the two-plus hours from his home in Madison, Wis., to watch his friend's every shot, walking 18 grueling holes outside the gallery ropes. Whistling Straits is an arduous pedestrian hike for a mountain goat, let alone someone with the surgically scarred knees that keep North upright. But he wanted to be there, because he knew what a win would have meant to Watson, but at day's end, he saw in his friend the virtues that engender such great respect from so many others in the game.
"He just got it going bad, and then nothing was working for him," North said. "He wanted to win this more than anything, and it didn't happen. It was such a tough day, trying to get around this place in the wind. But, you know, knowing Tom, he won't make excuses. He won't do that. He's the consummate pro."
Tom Watson lost a heartbreaker Sunday at Whistling Straits. But he didn't lose himself. Too bad we're not reminded enough anymore that such behavior constitutes a meaningful triumph all its own.
Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on www.ussenioropen.com.