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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Doesn’t Tom Watson Know How Old He Is?


Evidently the only person at the British Open (referred to as the Open Championship in England) who doesn’t know that Tom Watson is nearly 60-years-old is Watson himself. Playing against a field of golfers in which many are half his age, Watson enters the final round of golf’s oldest championship with a one-stroke lead.

Now there was a time when Tom Watson leading after 54-holes of the British Open surprised no one. After all, the only player with more Open Championships than the American is Harry Vardon, who last won the title in 1916.

However, just in case you weren’t sure, this is 2009, not 1977 or 1983. Watson is no longer the young golfer who won his first major championship at age 25 and all eight of his major championships before turning 34.

Instead, with his remarkable performance at Turnberry, Watson is the oldest golfer ever to hold a 54-hole lead at a major championship.

To put into perspective just how incredible Watson’s run is, the oldest golfer to win a major championship was Julius Boros, who won the 1968 PGA Championship at age 48.

If Watson is able to ride the wave through all the way to the title, he will beat that mark by more than a decade.

There have been other golfers of similar age to Watson to flirt with a major title, but none have been able to close the deal.

Sam Snead shot a final round 68 at the 1974 PGA Championships to finish tied for third, three strokes behind Lee Trevino, at 62-years of age.

Jack Nicklaus was 58 when he used a final round 68 to tie for sixth position (four strokes behind champion Mark O’Meara) at the 1998 Masters.

And just last year, 53-year old Greg Norman led the Open Championship by two strokes after 54 holes before finishing tied for third.

But what makes Watson's run particularly impressive, and perhaps gives him a chance to hold on for victory, is that he isn't simply surviving against brutal conditions or making a late tournament charge. Instead, he has been in contention from the very beginning and so far has responded to every challenge and overcome every potential pitfall.

Following an opening round 65 that left him just one stroke out of the lead, it looked like Watson was making the kind of fade from contention expected of a 59-year old.

He birdied the first hole of his second round to take the lead, but then had five bogeys in the next six holes to fall down the leaderboard. At the same time, Tiger Woods, the current number one player in the world seemed to be recovering from a tough start and headed to his rightful place near the top of the standings.

However, a curious thing happened on the way to normalcy.

Woods suddenly ran into a six-hole stretch where he went seven over par and ultimately missed the cut.

Conversely, Watson seemed to suddenly find the kind of magic he had displayed at Turnberry 32 years earlier when he registered back-to-back rounds of 65 to beat Nicklaus by one-stroke in the famous “Dual in the Sun.”

He birdied four of the final 10 holes to shoot an even par 70 and finish the second round tied for the lead.

Suddenly, the novelty of a 59-year old competing for a major championship was wearing off and the reality that no player left in the field has more championship success than Watson started to set in.

For much of the third round, Watson looked like an eight-time major champion. Making putt after putt, he maintained the lead while others around him started to implode.

Through eight holes, Watson was even for the day and continued to maintain his lead.

After a bogey on the ninth hole, Watson finally began to reveal some mortality as he missed relatively short putts and dropped strokes at the 12th and 15th holes to fall out of the lead for the first time on the day.

Then, for the second straight day, Watson seemed to channel his past glory and remember that he was playing for a record-tying sixth Open Championship.

He birdied the 16th hole and then got a very fortuitous bounce on his second shot at the par-five 17th that led to an eagle putt that just missed. He ended up with a second-straight birdie and a one-stroke lead.

When you look at the leaderboard heading into the final round, there is no Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, but there are a number of very talented golfers and former major champions that are poised to challenge Watson’s date with destiny.

Neither of the two players tied for second, Mathew Goggin and Ross Fisher, have ever won a major championship. While Fisher finished fifth at the 2009 U.S. Open, Goggin has never finished better than 36th in a major tournament.

Among the others in the top 10, there are three former major champions, Retief Goosen (tied for 4th, two strokes back), Jim Furyk (tied for 6th, three strokes back) and 2009 Master’s Champion Angel Cabrera (tied for 10th, five strokes back).

Also in contention are two players, Stewart Cink and Lee Westwood, who have both been close in majors, but never been able to pull out the victory.

It seems quite improbable that a 59-year old (he will turn 60 in September) who last made the cut at a major championship in 2006 and hasn’t been in the top 10 at a major since 2000 could actually beat all the other great golfers in the world over a four-day tournament at one of the most challenging courses in the world.

However, if it is ever going to happen it sure seems like Tom Watson is the guy to accomplish such an unimaginable feat. He is the essence of a professional golfer: steady, calm and single-minded in his focus.

As has been said more than once during the championship, even at 59-years of age, Watson doesn’t play the majors to be the ceremonial hand waver. He plays the majors in 2009 for the same reason he played in them 30 years ago, to win.

Sunday he will get his chance and you won’t want to miss it.


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