My Sportsman: Tom Watson
Even in defeat at Turnberry, Watson was one of the year's inspiring stories
At 59 with a new hip, Watson came thisclose to winning golf's oldest major
Watson rekindled old magic and memories 32 years after beating Nicklaus
Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 30. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.
I can still see Tom Watson on Turnberry's last fairway, holding the finish of his golf swing.
"I like it," Watson told his caddie, Neil Oxman, as his ball sailed toward the green.
We all liked it. Watson was going to win his sixth British Open.
This was going to be the greatest story in golf history and maybe sports history: a 59-year-old with a new hip winning golf's oldest major. There wouldn't be a dry eye in Scotland.
In the end, there were tears after all. Watson's ball hit the green a little too hard, rolled off the back and settled awkwardly in the grass.
He couldn't get down in two. He couldn't overcome Stewart Cink in a playoff. He didn't win the 2009 Open Championship.
In defeat, Watson remains my Sportsman of the Year for everything he gave at Turnberry -- for his grit, for his spirit and for his golf.
A few months before the tournament started, I was lucky enough to interview Watson for a story. It's funny looking back on it now. I asked him how Turnberry set up for Tiger Woods's run at the Grand Slam. Watson answered my questions patiently, even though they weren't about him.
"Turnberry has a beauty to it in that you have movement of the land, compared to the flatness of a Troon or St. Andrews," he said then. "You're hitting from uphill lies, downhill lies and sidehill lies. The golf course plays short, so I don't think Tiger will pull out the driver too many times. You do not hit the ball in bunkers in links golf and end up with much success. They are like little water hazards."
Everyone knows what happened at Turnberry. Woods missed the cut. Watson played those rugged links like a young man afire.
Thirty-two years after beating Jack Nicklaus by a stroke at Turnberry, Watson once more was magic there. I can still hear the thump of his irons crashing into the ball and that turf. It is the sound of a baseball on the sweet spot of a bat but several octaves deeper. It is the sound of perfection.
That it was coming all week from a senior golfer is the amazing thing. Watson's swing was nearly as long and beautiful as it had always been. Something was happening.
Something spiritual, Watson said.
After every round he came into the media tent and talked about the stretching exercises he'd been doing or the text messaging going on between him and the Nicklauses or the wonderful mysteries of links golf. It was like sitting in on a lecture at a university. We were learning at the knee of a master.
He came into the tent for a final time that Sunday evening. Outside, the shadows were getting longer. The sky was darkening. The chase was over.
"This ain't a funeral, you know?" Watson said and everybody laughed.
He was right, even if many of us quietly ached, none more than Watson himself.
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