Last April I took a break to caddy for the former United States Open champion Andy North when he teamed up with Tom Watson to defend their title in the two-man Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf tournament in Savannah, Georgia. So it was with more than a casual spectator’s interest that I watched in awe on Armed Forces television from Afghanistan as Watson made his amazing run at winning the British Open at age 59. Watson likes to talk about foreign affairs more than golf. So to let him know just how many people wanted him to win, I e-mailed him before the final round: “Even the Taliban are rooting for you.”
Indeed, I have been struck at how many golfers and nongolfers got caught up in Watson’s historic performance — tying for the lead after four rounds at Turnberry, but losing in a playoff to the 36-year-old Stewart Cink. I was not alone in being devastated that Watson was not able to par the last hole and clinch the win. Like millions of others, I shouted at the TV as his ball ran across the 18th green — heading for trouble — “STOP! STOP! STOP!” as if I personally had something at stake. Why was that?
Many reasons. For starters, Watson — a 59-year-old man who had played his opening two rounds in this tournament with a 16-year-old Italian amateur — was able to best the greatest golfers in the world at least a decade after anyone would have dreamt it possible. Watching this happen actually widened our sense of what any of us is capable of. That is, when Kobe Bryant scores 70 points, we are in awe. When Tiger Woods wins by 15 strokes, we are in awe. But when a man our own age and size whips the world’s best — who are half his age — we identify.
Of course, Watson has unique golfing skills, but if you are a baby boomer you could not help but look at him and say something you would never say about Tiger or Kobe: “He’s my age, he’s my build, he’s my height, and he even had his hip replaced like me. If he can do that, maybe I can do something like that, too.”
Neil Oxman, Watson’s caddy, who is a top Democratic political consultant in his real life, told me: “After Thursday’s round with Tom, when we left the scoring tent I said to him, ‘You know, this is a thing.’ He understood what I meant. On Sunday morning, the two of us were in the corner of the locker room without another human being around, sitting in these two easy chairs facing each other behind a partition. We were chatting about stuff, and I said to him, ‘For a lot of people, what you’re doing is life-affirming.’ I took it from a story about when Betty Comden and Adolph Green — the writers of “Singin’ in the Rain” — showed Leonard Bernstein the famous scene of Gene Kelly. Bernstein said to them, ‘That scene is an affirmation of life.’ What Tom did was an affirmation of life.”
Also, as Watson himself appreciates, the way he lost the tournament underscored why golf is the sport most like life. He hit two perfect shots on the 18th hole in the final round, and the second one bounced just a little too hard and ran through the green, leaving him a difficult chip back, which he was unable to get up and down. Had his ball stopped 30 centimeters shorter, he would have had an easy two-putt and a win.
So Tom Watson got a brutal lesson in golf that he’ll never forget, but he gave us all an incredible lesson in possibilities — one we’ll never forget.