Monday, July 20, 2009

A gentleman's game

Golf fans were transfixed over the weekend by the prospect that an almost-60-year-old, one year after hip replacement, might win "The Open Championship," perhaps golf's most-hallowed major tournament. The Royal and Ancient's throwdown dates back to 1860.

Recent winners of the British contest have been young guns like Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington so, at 1000 to 1, the oddsmakers gave Tom Watson no real chance going in.

But by the end of day three, and now in the spotlight, he said, "The first day here, 'Yeah, let the old geezer have his day in the sun,' the second day you said, 'Well, that's OK.' And now today, you kind of perk up your ears and say, 'This old geezer might have a chance to win the tournament.'"

To put this in perspective, the previous oldest winner was Old Tom Morris in 1867 at the age of 46.

Watson did indeed start with a day in the sun, finishing day one just a stroke behind Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez. Others posted better scores on days two and three, but the "old geezer" held on to go into the final day as the man to beat.

Of course, he had been there before, winning the claret jug five times in the the 70's and 80's, but it had been 26 years since his last Open victory. Some of his competitors were then unborn.

Always a fan favourite, Watson is quiet, unassuming, modest, courteous, forthright, one of the last of a disappearing cohort of gentleman sportsmen in an era of high-decibel self-promotion and indulgent behaviour. No smashing of clubs into the turf after an errant shot, no scowling oaths uttered when a putt fails to drop, no dramatic pondering over lines and lies. Just a smile, and a complete focus on the task at hand.

The old Turnberry course had, at times, a starring role in the drama, handing early leader Ross Fisher a soul-destroying eight at the fifth hole and dashing the hopes of other hotshots. After much shuffling of names at the top of the leaderboard, the "old geezer" found himself in a playoff with 36-year-old Stewart Cink (seeking his first major victory).

In the end, it all slipped away from Watson in the playoff --- a drive into a nasty bunker, another into the heavy rough, bad bounces and missed putts, a bit of fatigue --- in the face of Cink's steady play. No fairytale ending after all, but a lesson in style and grace, and four days in the sun.

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