Inspirational tale of the ‘old man’ and the tee

THE debate raged on in Turnberry bars and in national phone-ins long after Tom Watson had fled the scene of his flirtation with history.

Was Watson sport’s greatest inspiration? Or was he golf’s greatest embarrassment?

Inevitably, when the emotions had eased and the awe dissipated at how a man six weeks away from his 60th birthday could come within one putt of winning the game’s greatest prize the inquest turned to what Watson’s performance said about golf.

How could a man with an artificial hip who hardly plays competitively these days beat 154 of the world’s best golfers, including 14-major winner Tiger Woods?

How could they allow him to render all their gym work and coaching sessions and hours and hours of practice essentially worthless?

It could not happen in football or rugby or tennis. Or even in a non-physical sport such as snooker these days where dinosaurs such as former world champions Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry rarely trouble the young guns.

Yes, mature competitors have excelled in sports before and as Watson came up the 18th at Turnberry with just a par needed to become the oldest Open champion in history there was much scrambling through the record books.

The great Lester Piggott won the American classic Breeders’ Cup Mile at 54, but he did have the best horse by some distance, Royal Academy, beneath him. Stanley Matthews played in the old First Division at 50 and for England at 42. Boxer George Foreman won a world heavyweight title at 45.

Ireland’s Mick Kinnane won an English and Irish derby and a Coral Eclipse with the phenomenal Sea The Stars this year at the age of 50.

At home Mick O’Dwyer is still working his managerial magic at the ripe old age of 73, leading Wicklow to the last 12 of the All-Ireland series.

Essentially, Watson’s achievement goes to the core of that well-worn golfing adage: ‘‘The most important distance in golf is between the ears.’’

Turnberry is a thinking man’s golf course. At 7204 yards it is short by modern standards but it cannot be overpowered. Not when the crosswinds blow. It has to be negotiated with patience and precision. By playing intuitive links golf, the sort most modern golfers rarely play these days.

It is why Mark Calcavecchia, Juan Angel Jimenez and Retief Goosen, all past 40, also occupied elevated positions on the leaderboard for much of the weekend.

Many of today’s golfers, especially in America, are weaned on target golf. Hit it high over manicured real estate and land it soft. It is golf by numbers. By yardage chart. Essentially boring.

Or they play on courses such as Augusta National, which for all its beauty is a beast requiring such big hitting that the Watsons have no chance. Watson admitted as much, adding that even St Andrews contains one hole where he cannot reach the fairway off the tee.

As such Turnberry was a fluke, perhaps the one course on the major rota where Watson had a realistic opportunity. It is why golf’s organisers should resist calls to change their exemption rules on the basis of one remarkable performance, even if Watson will be barred from playing the Open after next year.

Watson was competitive but there were plenty of fifty-somethings who were not, such as Nick Faldo and Sandy Lyle, who as past champions are exempt from qualifying but who essentially take the place of a hungry youngster and will do so until they reach 60. Golf needs to look at the way it has skewed the sport in favour of power. It needs more Turnberrys and less hitting fests.

Watson shone a light on what golf and sport so often fails to see.

“This ain’t a funeral, you know,” said Watson, cracking the ice with a grin as reporters tiptoed into his post-tournament press conference, not wanting to intrude as he sat mulling how he had lost what should have been his sixth Open.

You cannot imagine too many of today’s sportsmen wearing their disappointment with such grace.

Impeccably courteous. Amiable. Accessible. Anxious, though it was impossible, that his story should not detract from that of Stewart Cink.

There were no tears, because Watson has sport and life in perspective as you might expect from someone who went through a bitter divorce, who successfully dealt with a drinking problem and who ploughed through years when his game was afflicted by the dreaded ‘yips’.

Yes, an old man was the story at Turnberry. But it was not embarrassing. It was truly inspiring.

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