The Big One That Got Away (Again)

The Big One That Got Away (Again)

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Tom Watson shot a 43 on his final nine at the U.S. Senior Open.
Morry Gash/AP

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.

(Click here to see photos from Sunday’s final round.)

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.