Defying age, an artificial hip installed only last October, and the elements 59 year old Tom Watson fired an even par 70 in high winds and rain at Turnberry on Friday to join Fairfax, Virginia's Steve Marino in the final game for today's play at the Open Championship. Meanwhile, the popular favorite, Tiger Woods, battled a balky tee ball all day and missed the cut. In my forty years of watching and playing this great and ancient game, I've never seen anything like this. After his round yesterday Watson said the "spirits are with me".
Contrary to popular misconceptions competitive golf at this level, over a lifetime, puts a tremendous amount of stress on one's body. It's no accident that most players hit their peak in their mid-30s and thereafter begin a steady decline. Back problems, neck problems (see young Anthony Kim in obvious pain yesterday), etc. plague nearly every golfer as they age. Fred Couples's back is now so bad he's often times unable to play. Jack Nicklaus has had an artificial hip for some years. Even the marvelously fit Mr. Woods knee injury was due both to his running regimen and the tremendous torque his powerful move puts on his left leg.
As a longtime admirer of Tom Watson I was moved to tears by his splendid round today. Tom's ball-striking has never faded but in recent years his putter (especially on the five to ten footers) has let him down but not yesterday or today as he thrilled the galleries with birdies at both 16 and 18. In Scottish seaside links golf, the game is often played along the ground and nobody has ever done this better than Tom Watson. And while most would not know this, the Open Championship has not always had much attraction for American professionals.
Although the great Bobby Jones won both the British Amateur and Open in 1930 and Sam Snead won in '46 it would be a long time before the Open would again tempt American professionals. You see in those days the game in Scotland was played with a smaller golf ball and the golf courses were, to say the least, not kept to American standards. The legendary Ben Hogan, who began the American resurgence in the Open, remarked upon arriving in Carnoustie where he won in '53: "These greens are awful. It's like putting on glue. I've got a lawnmower back in Texas. I'll send it over to you." But Hogan persevered and won over the dour Scots to the point that they affectionately referred thereafter to the taciturn Texan as the "Wee Icemon."
But it was Arnold Palmer who really made American professionals feel as if they weren't real golfers unless they crossed the pond to play the Open with his win at Royal Birkdale in '61 and at Troon in '62. And now Tom Watson, who played essentially a match play game with Nicklaus in the final round here in their "Duel in the Sun" in '77, has the opportunity to complete what would be perhaps the greatest feat in the history of sports should he win this Open. God what a great, great game. But with history also comes tragedy as Tom's longtime caddy, Bruce Edwards , died five years ago from ALS, a/k/a Lou Gehrig's Disease. Bruce stuck with Tom even when the latter's game was heading south. I would guess that memories of Bruce this day and indeed most days are never far from Tom's mind.
: And with eyes misting in memory of Bruce Edwards, Mr. Watson plays a splendid 71 and will go off as the leader tomorrow. Absolutely incredible.