Brian Watts, who almost won the '98 Open at Royal Birkdale, has endured a lost decade

Brian Watts hitting the bunker shot on 18 that helped get him into a playoff with Mark O'Meara in '98.
Gerry Penny/AFP/Getty Images

Brian Watts isn't one to complain about taking his medicine.

Just ask Dr. Greg Rose of the Titleist Performance Institute in Oceanside, Calif., who has helped Watts, 42, put himself back together after a decade-long bout of hip, back and knee injuries. One training day, Watts finished his medicine-ball drill but complained that his arms felt like rubber by the 200th throw. "I said 'Huh?' " Rose recalls. "He was supposed to do 20, and somehow an extra zero got in there."

Watts has needed that work ethic in the decade since he lost the 1998 British Open to Mark O'Meara, because his life has come to resemble Milton Bradley's Operation.

His body began breaking down after his first full year on Tour, in 1999. Watts played with a severely torn labrum in his left hip in 2000. He had surgery to try to correct it, but more injuries followed: two herniated discs in his lower back, a meniscus tear in his left knee, stress on his spine. He saw a rotating cast of doctors and, predictably, his play suffered. By late 2005, at the second stage of Q school, he'd had enough. "I could hardly bend over to tee up my ball," he says. "I was like, it can't be done like this."

No one could have foreseen such a nosedive from the player who burst onto the scene at Birkdale. A relative unknown who'd made a bundle of yen playing in Japan, Watts slept on the Friday and Saturday lead (it was "very draining") and was atop the board much of Sunday. He made a bomb for birdie on 17 to tie for the lead and found the greenside bunker on 18.

One leg in and one leg out of the sand — that crazy stance is our most indelible image of Watts. His 72nd hole explosion to a foot from the pin to force a playoff was the shot of the tournament, for about an hour. Then O'Meara won the four-hole playoff and copped Player of the Year honors for 1998. Watts, conversely, largely disappeared.

"It's been challenging," he says of the last decade, "to say the least."

After the painful, disappointing 2005 Q school, Watts returned to his Dallas home and spent his new free time playing with his three kids, all under 10, but he missed the Tour. He soon connected with Rose (along with a hip specialist, a chiropractor and a trainer) and embarked on a regimen of mobility and strengthening exercises. He did work to break up scar tissue. He began to put himself back together from the ankles up. "One of the hardest workers I've seen," Rose says.

If prompted, Watts will think about the first extra hole on that fateful Sunday and play what if. Watts missed a five-footer for birdie. O'Meara made his from six feet. That was pretty much it. There aren't many lead changes in a four-hole playoff.

"If there was one thing that disappointed me more than anything else it was my putt on the first playoff hole, a par-5, No. 15," Watts says. "I'd had to lay up and hit an 8-iron to about five feet, and Mark had hit a great pitch to about six feet. He converted and I missed mine to the right. It broke left to right and I missed it on the low side.

"I hit a ton of greens that day, but I wasn't hitting it next to the hole," Watts continues. "I was hitting it between 15 and 40 feet all day."

In mid-June of this year, Watts resumed his career at the Mizuno Open in Japan, where a top-four finish would have been rewarded with a spot in the Open, a return trip to Birkdale.

He shot 69-75 to miss the cut by a shot. For Watts, there is more work to be done.

 

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