"I enjoy beating people," Watson said last Saturday night, when he trailed Irwin and Murota by a shot. "I enjoy the competition. I enjoy getting in the hunt and having a chance to win a golf tournament. And that's me. It defines me. And I still am very fortunate to have the forum in which to conduct my career. And that is the Champions tour. The Senior PGA Championship of the Champions tour."
It sounds grand, when Watson says it, as it should, coming from a man who won five British Opens, two Masters, one U.S. Open. Plus three Senior British Opens. And, of course, his two Senior PGA Championships on the Champions tour.
Jeff Sluman has one major, a PGA Championship, which is the missing piece from Watson's career grand slam. (He lost in a playoff to John Mahaffey in 1978.) At a dinner during the British Open some years ago Watson said to Sluman, jokingly, "I'll trade you two of my [British] Opens for your PGA." As if he were playing Monopoly.
"I would have liked to have won the real PGA Championship, but this is a great substitute for it," Watson said on Sunday night. So Watson doesn't have that one neat, super cool line on his résumé—winner of the career grand slam. But what about this? He was playing world-class golf in 1975. Thirty-six years later he still is.
Nicklaus is the king of longevity. He won his first professional major in 1962 and his last in '86 and 16 in between. He semidominated senior golf without showing up all that much. Woods, in a press conference last week, commented (admiringly) about how long it took Nicklaus to get to 18 majors (24 years). Viewed that way, Woods said, he had plenty of time to try to get to 18. (He has 14 in 15 years.) The king of golfing longevity is Sam Snead, who won a Tour event at age 52 and contended in majors in his 60s. But what became clear last week is that Watson is just a notch below Snead in the longevity department. As for Irwin, attention must be paid to him, too. To do what he did at the edge of 66? That's crazy. "I don't know what retire means," he said last week.
No golfer does. It's a new thing in the game, players announcing their retirement. Lorena Ochoa did it, and so did Annika Sorenstam, but they could be back. You don't know. Arnold Palmer retired and returned more times than Freddy Krueger. An old slogan of the PGA of America is that golf is "the game of a lifetime." Which it is. Look at Eger. He was a good amateur. He was a mediocre pro. He became a well-regarded tournament administrator at the USGA and at the PGA Tour and returned to amateur golf. Then, with 50 looming came a second stint as a pro. And then came last week, at 58, when he nearly won the granddaddy of all the senior majors. He's a better golfer now than he was 10 years ago. That's amazing. You can do that in golf.
Eger said he tired in the last round. Watson said he did too, but there was less evidence of it. Still, Eger got himself in an enviable spot, standing on a green in a playoff in a major with one of the greatest players in the history of the game. "It's the ultimate mulligan in life for a golfer to be able to come out here and play, and play reasonably well at times, and compete with the likes of Tom Watson and Hale Irwin and wonderful great players who I watched from a golf cart," Eger said.
The last time Watson was in a playoff for a major title was at Turnberry at the British Open in 2009, when Stewart Cink took the day and crushed a million Lipitor-aided hearts. In that playoff Watson looked physically drained. Sunday at Valhalla, when he ran up the face of that bunker, was a different matter. Watson was asked what the difference between the two playoffs was.
He was nervous both times. You're always nervous, he said, trying to win a major championship.
"Well, I was in control of this one," Watson said. "I guess. A little bit." He knows what we know. Golf is a game of a lifetime. You just keep knocking. Maybe the ghost of Jock Hutchison will show up on the other side of the door. Or the humongous Senior PGA Championship trophy. At Turnberry, Watson couldn't get the putt to win to drop. At Valhalla he could. Time is your friend in golf. Especially if you have a body and a swing that will not quit.