He stood there last Saturday like a carving on a mythical Mount Watson, poised at the upper end of the 6th fairway at Whistling Straits, studying the green below while deciphering his next shot in the U.S. Senior Open. From a spectator's vantage point below, Tom Watson looked heroic, like George Washington crossing the Delaware. At least one photographer thought so too, because the moment was splashed across the front of the Sunday sports section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, under the headline lonely at the top.
Watson truly is golfing royalty to those of a certain age, the last in a line of superstars from the time before Tiger. In the 1960s golf had its Big Three Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, with Billy Casper in the mix. Next came Lee Trevino and Johnny Miller. And then there was Watson, who would prove the worthiest successor to the Big Three by winning eight major championships.
Now 57, Watson has deep lines on his face, a weathered neck and the trace of a limp from a bum hip that makes it difficult for him to spread his legs wide enough to ride his horses at his ranch outside Kansas City, Mo. ("My wife said I should get skinnier horses," Watson says.) But his rhythmic swing has aged better than a Mercedes, and last week, on a windswept monster of a course in Haven, Wis., that the Watson of old would have boldly engaged and conquered, the old Watson didn't fare too badly.
A six-under-par 66 in the second round gave him the 36-hole lead, and a vintage display of scrambling kept him at the top after 54. After a couple of birdies around the turn on Sunday, Watson was three strokes ahead with eight to play and on the verge of winning the Senior Open for the first time.
Watson is at the point in his career where he is a sentimental favorite. Nobody says it, nobody writes it, but the truth is that everyone roots for him because the clock is ticking.
He has done nearly all there is to do in the game. The only major he failed to win was the PGA Championship, although he satisfyingly took the 2001 Senior PGA. The last major milestone left for him is the Senior Open. Watson has finished second three times.
Once, in 2002, he lost a five-hole playoff to Don Pooley. Last year at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kans., before a partisan home crowd, he was edged out by Allen Doyle.
Last week Watson was out-played down the stretch by Brad Bryant (affectionately known as Doctor Dirt during his PGA Tour days). The combo platter of a remarkable round by Bryant, whose 68 was the low score of the day, and an eight-hole collapse by Watson, who shot a seven-over 43 on the final nine, led to Bryant's first major victory and another stinging defeat for Watson.
"Yeah, 43 doesn't get it done," was all he could say afterward.
Bryant, who finished three shots ahead of Ben Crenshaw, four ahead of Loren Roberts and five clear of Watson, was humble in victory.
"I've always been a journeyman," he said. "To beat a couple of the best players in the world is near miraculous. I don't think any of us understand how significant this is for a guy like me."
A victory, though, would've been oh-so- significant for Watson. That's why his favorite better-ball partner, two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North, and North's daughter Andrea had driven the two hours from their house in Madison to walk the final 18 in Sunday's withering heat with Tom's wife, Hilary, and his son, Michael. You never know if Watson's next major victory will be his last, and you don't want to miss it.
North says his friend has a lot of game left.
"He can still really play. People would be blown away by how little he practices now. It's fun to watch him when he's on."
Saturday's round, during which Watson scraped together a 73, was right out of 1980. His downwind approach to the 5th green bounced hard on the front of the green and rolled down a slope to the right, leaving a tricky 45-foot putt up the hill and over a crest. When Watson rolled it in, he pumped a clenched fist in the air as an exclamation point, a goose-bump moment.
Two holes later, on a par-3 called Shipwreck, his tee shot drifted right and bounced down a terrace into the rough near a bunker. He was short-sided and had a terrible lie, yet played a sweet pitch that spun to a stop 20 feet past the pin. He rolled that one in too.
Another clenched fist, another roar from the gallery, more goose bumps.
Sunday was another story. After Watson made back-to-back birdies at the 9th and 10th holes, there was reason to believe that this might finally be his time. But it all suddenly unraveled at the par-5 11th, where he hit a poor drive and a chunky nine-iron third and then needed four shots to get down from in front of the green. It was an ugly double-bogey 7.
"That was a real body blow," Watson said.
He three-putted the 12th. Bogey. His drive at the 13th missed the fairway by a yard. Another bogey. There was one last Watson Par a phrase that entered the game's lexicon in the 1970s when Watson's scrambling abilities were at their zenith.
His approach at 14 flew the green and landed on a downslope on the back edge of a bunker. He appeared to have no chance of getting his ball onto the green. Somehow, he splashed out to eight feet and sank the putt. That momentarily stopped the bleeding, but his tee shot at 15 ran through a fairway bunker into the rough next to a low-lying bush. We'll skip the gory details: He made a double bogey while Bryant, a hole ahead, hit the shot of the championship, a three-wood second to just off the green at the par-5.
He chipped close for the birdie that put him three ahead, and just like that, it was Bryant's Open.
"Tom's hip was hurting him, but he's never going to tell you that," North said.
Watson doesn't make excuses. He plays on, but not next week, when the British Open returns to Carnoustie, the site of his first Open win. He won't be there because his daughter, Meg, is getting married.
Watson will play the week after in the Senior British Open at Muirfield, where he is revered for winning five Opens. The Scots know royalty, and heroes, when they see them.