Jet lag seems to have its way no matter what I do and this morning, finding myself wide awake at 3 am I waited for it to get light before slipping out to play 14 holes of golf on my own. It was magical to be out as the sun rose and have the path of my ball recorded by a heavy dew across a beautifully early morning sunlit green. Rabbits were my only audience and they witnessed both the good and the bad of my golf game.
I have a well-prepared sermon for those who tell me they don’t get Golf and I have converted quite a few through the years. It includes such jewels as how on any given occasion, one can actually do what Tiger Woods couldn’t in that you might hole the putt he misses (how many can hit any of the shots Roger Federer hit on his way to another Wimbledon title last month?), how you could pop along to Turnberry this week and play the same course that saw yesterday`s drama in the British Open. That’s a bit like being able to take your Sunday kick-about friends to play at Wembley the day after the FA cup Final. You play the game with yourself as referee and call penalties on yourself. There is the handicap system, which means a relative beginner can have a competitive game with a seasoned good player and all that’s before I get into the history, the social side of it all and the spiritual for that matter. The way pro golfers will acknowledge each other’s good shots and even help on the practice ground if they think they have spotted something wrong with a fellow competitors swing. Imagine Alex Ferguson calling Arsène Wenger to tell him where he thinks the weakness in his defence is! I have played the game since I was a little boy and, despite my early dreams of becoming a touring pro being quashed by reality a long time ago, it has brought much richness into my life.
More fuel for my argument was offered up yesterday in the example of one Mr Tom Watson. He almost won his sixth British Open at the age of 59 and after having a hip replaced eight months ago. He won the Open at Turnberry back in 1977 when he and Jack Nicklaus blew the rest of the field apart with amazing golf. The oldest winner of a major remains 46, which is a record that belongs to Nicklaus, but it was nearly, so very nearly smashed apart yesterday. In fact, I’m pretty sure that no-one will come close to achieving what Watson did yesterday. Coming in the top ten at 59 (he is actually nearly 60) would have been an amazing achievement let alone losing in a playoff. Golf, like all sports, can be very cruel. If Tom had hit a nine iron for his second shot into the eighteenth instead of an eight his ball would have nestled nicely on the green giving him two putts for the title. Instead the ball skipped through the back and he failed to get down in two from off the green. Had he won it would have been without doubt be one of the greatest sporting achievements of all time. On a course that had caused Tiger Woods to miss the halfway cut, Watson finished ahead of the best golfers in the world with only Stewart Cink matching his score and going on to beat him in an anti- climatic 4-hole playoff. I love that this can happen and I confess to shedding a little tear that it didn’t, but then again I was not alone. But more than the record he would have set, more than the achievement of it all (in tennis terms it would be like Bjorn Borg loosing in the Wimbledon final this year) there was something else on display yesterday that I treasure about this ancient game.
Despite the enormous disappointment of not writing the victorious final part of what Watson described later as a ‘great story’ his attitude and demeanour to those around him did not change. He smiled at the man who took victory and history from him; he smiled at everyone though at times he was close to tears. He had gracious words for everyone but himself. Earlier in the day Oliver Fisher had led the tournament by two shots but took a disastrous eight on an early hole to end his chances. Within seconds of tapping the ball into the hole to complete those eight strokes he raised his hand to acknowledge the sympathetic applause and managed a smile. It may have been a moment of intense wisdom in realising that the imminent birth of his child was what was really important in the world, but it is seen time and time again in this purest of sports that these things are important and that the game itself is much bigger than any individual player. My rambling here is in danger of sounding like some sort of Tory policy to bring back the good old days and family values. But it’s so much more than that.
I used to love watching football as a kid. Match Of The Day and the Big Match on ITV were looked forward to every weekend, but these days apart from the big occasions I cant bear to watch the beautiful game. This is because I don’t want to watch players pretending to dive, the infantile behaviour of managers who think the world is against only them, the abuse of officials and the over the top celebration of someone scoring and gesturing to crowds as if they were the saviour of the world, though I guess in that moment for many they are. But we deserve our heroes to grant us glimpses of redemption in a far more noble and truthful way. I have seen that ‘nobleness’ offered up ever since I was a little boy glued to late night broadcasts from Augusta and as a man I see it even more. Give me the grace of Tom Watson every time. Only that time has probably run out, but who could have imagined yesterdays story.
In the Independent today James Lawton put it far better than I ever could.
Tom Watson, aged 59, grew old before our eyes in the gloaming last night. It was a sight which he had led us to believe was unthinkable but if there was pain in seeing it, and a frustrated longing for him to find just for a few minutes more the old and brilliant snap that he had displaying here so magnificently, there was also something you could hold against the weariness and the despair. It was the privilege of being around Tom Watson when he not only played some of the most brilliant golf of his life but also defined himself. It was how it is when you know you have touched something that will always shine like gold.
Long before the moment of decision came, with such awful finality, Watson’s achievement was beyond any analysis of pro and con, any feeble attempt to measure the demands of one sports discipline against another. It was simply to create the greatest, most compelling, and ultimately the most poignant story in the history of any sport you care to name.
The ending of the story was savage and true of life in a way which Watson had suspended since he arrived here at the start of a week which claimed for itself a charm, a fascination and an intrigue beyond anything most here could ever remember in any arena of sport.
When he shared the lead after three days of golf which most experts believed would inevitably drain his ability to keep fighting, to keep the firmest control over his driver, his irons and the putter which at a much earlier age had threatened to drive him away from the golf course because it had become so erratic, and such a betrayer of his other much more enduring skills, he was asked if had yet pinched himself. He said there was no need for such an exercise. He was alive, he was awake, and he was gunning for the most remarkable triumph in the history of his sport and, maybe when you thought about it, any other.
There was no reason for him or those watching to question that assessment – at least not until the glorious spell was broken, irretrievably, when the 138th Open was torn from Watson at the moment of what appeared to be astonishing triumph.
It wasn’t, in the desperate, bone-jarring end, that Watson played golf that wasn’t smart as Cink moved irresistibly to victory in the four play-off holes. No, the man from Kansas City who tried to rework time and the possibilities of the game and his own self-belief in an entirely breathtaking way, didn’t play any form of crazy golf. He played golf that was exhausted, worn down by the most astonishing effort ever seen in a major tournament.
Walking up the 18th fairway less than a hour earlier Watson seemed to be holding so much more than the Claret Jug and the £750,000 that goes to the winner of the oldest golf tournament of them all. He had in his possession a secret beyond price for so many men of his age. He had found a way to reinvent himself, his youth and the best of his talent.
But it had come to him, we would learn with a terrible bruising of the spirit, only for a limited time – only for the best of four days in a place for which he would always be remembered for something he had done so long ago.
Now there is another memory and it is even more deathless than the one that went before. It is of a man who made sport, time and the inevitable passing of a young man’s brilliance stand still. It was only for those few days, but for a little while we thought we would have it forever. And really, we do. Tom Watson didn’t win this Open but he did make it the greatest ever played.