Tom Watson has the shanks

Wednesday July 23rd, 2008
Watson at Royal Troon on Wednesday.
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

TROON, Scotland — If you are impressionable or sensitive to use of the S-word, you might not want to read the following. It concerns Tom Watson, the defending champion at the British Senior Open, and his confession that he ... well, that he's been ... Oh hell, I'll just say it: He's got the SHANKS.

"I'm shanking the ball more than I used to," Watson said this afternoon after practicing at Royal Troon. "I hit three shanks last year, and I think I've had one shank this year." He was grinning when he said this, gallows humor apparently suiting his senior-golfer temperament.

Personally, I'd have rather heard him admit to a passion for cross-dressing. The shank — defined as "a severe mishit in which the ball is struck by the hosel of the club" — is the ugliest shot in golf. Most club pros won't even use the S-word on the lesson tee, for fear of infecting those within earshot.

"I never had a shank before," Watson continued, alluding to a Hall of Fame career encompassing eight major titles and 31 other PGA Tour wins.

"Actually, I did." He smiled again. "I was playing with Gary Player, and I had a shank at the Canadian Open — a beautiful high shank over here into the adjoining fairway. And then I hit a pitching wedge up on the green and made about a 20-footer for par."

A "beautiful high shank" leading to a par? Watson, to paraphrase Bobby Jones, plays a game with which I am not familiar.

I was reminded of the time I interviewed Johnny Miller on the subject of his final-round 63 at the 1973 U.S. Open. "Your iron game was phenomenal that day," I said to Miller. "What was your swing thought coming down the stretch at Oakmont?"

"I only had one thought over the ball," Miller replied. "Don't shank it!"

Miller went on to explain that he had once held the final-round lead in a Bing Crosby Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, only to crash and burn with a cold-shanked approach shot on the 16th hole. He was never able to erase that shot from his memory bank — which explains, if you think about it, the NBC commentator's white-knuckle analysis of contemporary players.

Still, it was a shock to hear Watson spewing the S-word at Troon, like some latter-day George Carlin. Asked for details about his most recent shank, Watson cited a second-round screw-up at his own Watson Challenge, a three-round medal-play tournament for Kansas City-area golfers. "I was playing the 17th hole, a par 5 into a strong wind, and I was just trying to hit a 60-yard sand wedge. I take the swing, and there it is" — he swept an arm out to the right — "a pitch-out ... fortunately, it didn't get into really bad trouble. I had a little pitch, knocked it to about six feet and made it for par.

"Easy par," Watson said for emphasis. "Driver, 5-iron, shank, sand wedge, putt."

So there you have it. One of the greatest players in the history of the game ...

"I had a shank last year at Minneapolis," Watson interrupted. "I was in the hazard, and the ball was above my feet, and I was trying to hit a shot, laid open the face ... but I shanked it out of the hazard. But at least I got it out." He beamed. "Got it over here" — another wave of the arm — "and I got that ball up-and-down for ...."

We know, Tom. For par.

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