When the 1991 Ryder Cup was held on the then new Ocean course on Kiawah Island, S.C., the hotly contested event was billed as the War by the Shore. Last week, when big-time golf finally returned to Kiawah, they could have called the Senior PGA Championship the Gore by the Shore, because the wind-whipped Ocean course absolutely destroyed the over-50 set. “In 44 years of playing this game, all the U.S. Opens and British Opens, I’ve never played a course this hard,” said Tim Simpson, who finished fifth, seven shots behind winner Denis Watson.
Kiawah took no prisoners in that ’91 Ryder Cup. Remember the carnage at the dreaded 17th hole, a 197-yard par-3 with a waste area on the left and a huge, frequently visited water hazard in front and on the right? Mark Calcavecchia, among others, certainly does. There was more of the same last week. The 17th yielded one perfect 10-sorry, David Ishii-and 67 double bogeys or worse. Only 22 birdies were made on the hole, which was playing so tough that on Saturday, PGA officials took mercy on the players and moved up the tee, making 17 a more senior-friendly 158 yards.
Because the Pete Dye-designed Ocean course is almost always raked by gusty winds off the Atlantic and has raised greens, acres of waste areas and bunkers so deep that they ought to come with ladders, some players wondered if the course, which was a terrific stage for match play, is suitable for a stroke-play event. (The 2012 PGA Championship is scheduled for Kiawah.) Says one former major champion who wishes to remain anonymous, “It’s a combination of a TPC and a links course, with the worst qualities of both. It wasn’t designed for wind.”
The Ocean course sure is pretty, though, and the Senior PGA was four days of beautiful disasters. The first two rounds should’ve come with a disclaimer: WARNING! MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR EGO. The average score was 77.265 in round 1. How windy was it? On the two par-5 holes used to measure players’ drives, the average tee shot on the 7th, playing downwind, traveled 295 yards. On the 16th, playing into the wind, the average was 225.
On Sunday the tournament turned on the 14th hole, a 194-yard par-3 with a Redan green nearly surrounded by sand. The leader, Eduardo Romero of Argentina, a low-ball hitter who grew up playing in wind, pulled his tee shot into the back of a deep bunker. His ball buried in the steep downslope, which shouldn’t happen. Indiana Jones could not have extricated the ball, so Romero did what an alarming number of players had been forced to do last week after hitting into sandy side slopes: take a one-stroke penalty for an unplayable lie. Romero’s drop plugged in a sandy lie outside the bunker, then he splashed a shot onto the green-no small feat-and two-putted for the double bogey he knew he’d make the moment his tee shot drifted left. “Very sad, very sad,” he said, “but it’s O.K. Golf is like this.” (Not at most places, El Gato.)
Watson, in the final group with Romero and Nick Price, pured a four-iron to eight feet and made the birdie putt to execute the golf equivalent of the Mongolian Reversal. The three-shot swing vaulted him from a shot back to two ahead, and he held the lead to the end, playing another superb tee shot to the 17th green and officially becoming the winner when Romero’s birdie try missed at 18.
Watson finished at nine-under-par 279, and the 51-year-old Zimbabwean’s remarkable return to the winner’s circle is the feel-good story of the senior tour. I mean, really, we can dispense with the voting. Let’s name him the comeback player of the year right now. The victory was Watson’s first in 23 years, and it came after an exhausting string of surgeries and rehabs all tracing back to 1985, when he blew out his wrist, elbow and neck by hitting the stump of a tree.
Winning the oldest senior major on the toughest course the Champions tour has ever seen is an impressive feat for a man who has played in only 30 tournaments over the last 14 years and has had eight or nine (Watson has lost count) operations.
When Watson began his latest comeback last year, after shoulder surgery, his longtime friend and coach, David Leadbetter, told him his swing was “DOA.” A lesser man would’ve given up, and Watson says he was temporarily despondent last Friday when he finished the first nine of the second round by going double bogey-double bogey. Then, as he was riding to the 10th tee, he caught sight of a man with impaired vision and a bum leg tapping his way back to the cart path. “That got me,” said Watson. “I thought, Geez, you have no right to be unhappy. You get to play golf. That guy will never play golf. So that was a sign from God-have a good attitude because you’re pretty lucky.”
Lucky? Watson was told that he’d never play golf again after his first wrist surgery. On another occasion, doctors transposed an ulnar nerve because Watson’s two fingers and thumb were barely working. Then there was the time he had neck surgery in Los Angeles. Watson woke up in a body brace, complete with head halo, instead of a back brace because doctors found that the damage was worse than expected. Last year his right shoulder froze up, and after Watson rehabbed for three months and began to play again, his left shoulder gave out. That required surgery and another 5 1/2 months of rehab.
Along the way Watson divorced (his ex went on to marry another pro golfer named Watson: Tom) and remarried. Denis and Susan Loggans, an attorney in Chicago, have five children-including two sets of twins-ranging in ages from four to six.
What makes Watson’s comeback special is how long he has waited for it and how hard he has worked for it. His career had just begun to blossom when he was struck down. He had three wins on Tour in 1984, including the World Series of Golf, which carried a 10-year exemption. Twenty-three years later his career is once again showing signs of growth. “It’s wonderful to be playing golf again,” he says. “I feel lucky.”
So does everyone else. The Ocean course isn’t on next year’s schedule.