PGA Tour Confidential: British Open

PGA Tour Confidential: British Open

Tom Watson watched his sixth British Open slip away when he missed his par putt on the 18th green.
Robert Beck/SI

Every week of the 2009 PGA Tour season, the editorial staff of the SI Golf Group will conduct an e-mail roundtable. Check in on Mondays for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: The British Open is over, and many are still in mourning that Tom Watson, the 59-year-old contender, lost it. Watson joked at his quiet press conference, “Well, it’s not a funeral, you know,” but it did feel like one.

Apparently this is the Year of Lost Majors. Kenny Perry lost the Masters, Phil Mickelson lost the U.S. Open (again) and the amazing Watson lost the British despite flagging an 8-iron shot on the 72nd hole. It’s hard to find much consolation for ol’ Tom. It’s unlikely he’ll contend for another major, and the idea of winning a historic sixth Open all these years later was oh-so enticing.

Stewart Cink’s two-under par showing in the playoff was impressive, and he’s a worthy champion, but this will be remembered as the Open that Watson lost. What are your thoughts, fellow Confidentialists, on the demise of what would’ve been the Golf Story of the Year, and maybe the Golf Story of All Time? (Even bigger, I think, than Tiger’s win last year at Torrey Pines.)

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: You’ve got to believe some part of Cink felt weird about having to go out and slay Watson in front of the world. I know there’s no room for sentiment in the world of pro sports, but it must have felt like having to tell a room full of kids there is no Santa Claus.

David Dusek, deputy editor, I think you’re right, but Cink was dialed in during the playoff. When he made the putt on 5 for a four to take the lead, you had the feeling he was willing, and able, to step on Watson’s hopes.

John Garrity, contributing writer, Sports Illustrated: I hustled over to the tented village as the playoff began, because the
biggest pub crowd in Open history was gathered to watch the finish on the giant screen by the 17th hole. Believe me, that crowd HATED Cink! Not for anything he did, just for being Watson’s spoiler. When Stewart’s ball started rolling toward the greenside bunker on the first playoff hole, Brits were yelling, “Go in! Go in!” And when Watson had that tough putt to save par on the par 3, a woman behind me was praying out loud, moaning, “Oh, sweet Jesus, pul-eeze!” As an eavesdropping Yank, I felt bad for both of our guys.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a press corps undergo the mood swing it did from the moment Watson’s ball was in the air on the 18th hole to when it landed. As writers, we root for the story, and a Watson win would have transcended golf and made for one joyride of a Sunday-night write. Who knows when this opportunity will ever come again. Golf is a beautiful and tragic game. There’s nothing like it on this big blue marble.

Morfit: Agreed. The finish sucked all the oxygen out of this place. I saw an awful lot of fans headed for the exits with their heads down as Watson made a haggis of 17. Journos would have left, too, if not for, you know, the job and all.

Connell Barrett, editor-at-large, Golf Magazine: After it was over, I wanted to kick a can around my block. “No fair! A hard bounce on 18. The golf gods robbed Watson!” But he had so many breaks. The claret jug was being presented to him on a platter. Tiger? Gone. Furyk and Retief were on milk cartons. Westwood and Goggin stumbled in. All the planets were aligned. He just couldn’t get up-and-down. I’m guessing that his greatest regret, when he reflects on today, will be the tentative putt for par on the 72nd hole. He never gave the ball a chance to fall. It’ll be tough for him to sleep tonight. All that said, I feel honored as a golf fan and golf journalist to have witnessed this week, win or lose.

Charlie Hanger, executive editor, As a Kansas City native and fan, I have to say to the sporting gods — haven’t we suffered enough? To tease us with this near miracle was just not fair.

Garrity: Speaking as a fellow Kansas Citian, I’m with Charlie on this. A Watson win would have felt like the ’85 Royals winning the World Series. (It was ’85, wasn’t it? It’s been so long.)

Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Plus: Watson deserved better on the 72nd. Hit two great shots. Unfortunately he followed them with two really shaky ones.

Van Sickle: Yeah, I’d like to know which golfing god caused Watson’s 8-iron to run two feet too far. If it stays on the green, as it appeared it should have, he could’ve gagged it down in two for the win.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Here in the Turnberry press room everyone is still buzzing about Watson’s shot into 18 in regulation. He did pure it, but it took a hard bounce and trickled over the back. He later admitted he was between an 8-iron and a 9 and he chose the 8, even straight downwind and with all that adrenaline. I was standing next to the green for the last couple of groups and all the balls were taking big bounces. You’d think that after all these years Watson would’ve known to hit the 9. Better to be a little short with a 30 foot putt than long to a back flag. It was a rookie mistake that ultimately cost him the Open.

Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Did Watson’s caddie and friend, Neil Oxman, a part-time caddie and full-time Philadelphia political consultant, call a club all week? I think on 18 with a one-shot lead you take long out of play with a 9-iron. Watson needed a professional caddie at that point — not a friend.

Jim Herre, editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Plus: I don’t think you hang it on the caddie. Watson’s been there before and should’ve known what to do.

Shipnuck: Watson’s been winning tournaments for more than three decades. He should be able to pull his own clubs, especially on the 72nd hole. And Oxman is a professional caddie. He’s been Watson’s regular caddie for at least five years.

Morfit: Even though Watson went over the green, he still gets that ball up and down 9 times out of 10. I just think the enormity of the moment finally got to him on that first jack-hammered putt. All credit to him for lasting as long as he did.

Garrity: Anybody remember that Watson had a 22-mph ocean wind at his back? It was gusting as high as 30 and then dropping back into the teens. As Tom said in his press conference, he hit that 8-iron the way he wanted to and he liked it when it was in the air.

Van Sickle: Cink had a strange finish. On one hand, he looked all Padraig Harrington with four birdies on the final nine, including the big one at 18. And talk about out of character. I don’t recall seeing quiet Stew walking in a putt when it was only halfway to the hole. If he doesn’t hole that one, Watson still wins the Open. On the other hand, when the Open was on the line, he badly missed short putts on 16 and 17. On the third hand, he played immaculate golf in the playoff when it really counted.

Manage your game, on and off the course, with SI GOLFNation — Join Now!

Dusek: My hope that whole time was that, if Watson wasn’t going to win, someone else would catch fire and earn it. I didn’t want to see Tom lose it. With all due respect to Cink, who was great in the playoff, the event is forever going to be remembered for Watson NOT winning on the 72nd hole.

Shipnuck: I admire Cink for not getting caught up in all the emotion. Of the top 20 finishers he was the only guy to birdie 18, while Watson, Wood and Westwood all bogeyed it. In the playoff Cink did a full-blown Tiger, stepping on Watson’s neck without remorse. You can be classy and kind when it’s over, and Cink was. When it was time to get the trophy, Cink was a cold-blooded killer.

Dusek: This will put to bed the lingering demons of 2001 for Cink. He’s got to feel relief on some level.

Hack: Cink was understandably overwhelmed after the tournament. He played a beautiful round of golf and even better playoff. That up and down from the bunker at the fifth — ball below his feet, long bunker shot — was clutch.

Evans: I was pleased with how Cink handled the situation. It reminded me a little of Faldo and Norman in ’96, when the Shark gave away the tournament on Sunday. But Cink is still not a great player. He’s just another guy who stole a major in the Age of Tiger Woods.

Hack: The Shark gave away the Masters, but Faldo shot 67 on Sunday and pressured him from the word go. I don’t think it’s quite the same.

Van Sickle: I agree with Farrell that Cink still doesn’t qualify as a great yet. But now all of his semi-close major finishes will be cast in a different light. It will be: “See how often he’s been close?” Instead of: “See how he can’t close the deal?” I thought Cink would get a U.S. Open, if anything.

Dusek: Cink is going to be treated like Geoff Ogilvy. Nice guy, nicely played, but the other guy lost it.

Hack: I like Dusek’s Cink-Ogilvy comparison, right down to their oily, smooth swings.

Van Sickle: Azinger had a good line on ABC (a lot of good lines, and it was great to hear Tom Weiskopf again) in which he pointed out that winning wouldn’t have changed Watson’s life. He’s already a legend with five Open titles. Still, a 59-year-old winning would’ve been larger than life. He wouldn’t have just been the cover of SI; he might’ve been on the cover of Time, Newsweek and a few others.

Dick Friedman, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: It arguably would have been the greatest feat by an older athlete ever. Even though he lost, maybe it IS the greatest feat, given his age. Watson’s finish reminded me of what somebody in this group said about Perry at the end of the Masters: those were tired-old-man putts/swings.

Morfit: It seemed like Watson was thinking about what he was doing vis-a-vis Nicklaus and their generation of players. He mentioned Jack a ton this week. I think Watson wanted to get it done to tell everyone, in effect, respect your elders. Like, “We’re older, but we were just as damn good as you guys are today. And I’ll prove it.”

Van Sickle: Dick is right. It may be one of the all-time performances in sports even though he lost. It was a matter of inches, really. But I had a bad feeling when he stood over that five-footer for par. The way that stroke looked, Watson apparently had a bad feeling, too.

Herre: The eight-footer on 18 was particularly painful.

Van Sickle: It was stunning how on short putts, Watson took the club straight back inside, almost vertical toward his feet instead of away from the ball.
It’s a wonder he didn’t miss a few more.

Dusek: Let’s not forget how many bombs he made from long range during the week. Major winners need a bit of good fortune, but he drained putts from 50-60 feet away down the stretch on Friday and made plenty of par-saving 10-footers. His blade was red-hot all week. Or at least until it mattered most.

Herre: It seemed as if he could only release the putter on the long ones. He simply jabbed at a number of the shorties.

Van Sickle: When you think about the long bombs he holed, the text from Jack, the tie-in to the Duel in the Sun, the memory of Bruce Edwards and Watson’s age, there seemed to be divine intervention at work all week. Watson mentioned spirituality frequently. It seemed like it was a Ben-Crenshaw-at-the-Masters harmony. That’s why it was so stunning when it went sour at the end.

Shipnuck: For all the talk of experience, I think Watson felt the most pressure today. This was his last hurrah and he knew it, just as Norman did last year. Westwood et al will have other chances, and Cink would have too if this one got away.

Van Sickle: I agree that age and experience can work against all these Cinderella old guys. At this age, winning would mean even more and they know it, and that makes it that much harder to win. It was the putter that ultimately beat Watson. Tee to green, his swing is still a piece of flowing artwork.

Garrity: Gary is right about Watson’s ball-striking. I stood right behind him on many of his tee shots after the turn, and he was flat-out stripin’ it. If he had been able to control the ball that well in his prime — when he had the greatest short game in the world — he might have won another half dozen majors.

Gorant: I thought there was a huge void of anyone on the broadcast who could put things into perspective and set up the moment. As Watson was playing 18 there was nothing being said that elevated or even equaled the moment. Johnny would’ve been crying his eyes out talking about the enormity of it all, and I never thought I’d say this, but I was even pining for Jim Nantz.

Herre: Good call. Tirico tried but didn’t have the chops to define the moment.

Evans: ABC really doesn’t like golf. If I get another “package” or historical piece or Jack Whitaker chats from our dear friend Rick Reilly, I’m going to put the TV on mute. Just give us the golf, please.

Herre: I thought Alliss was a little cranky today, disagreeing with some of the observations made by the ABC crew. He usually disagrees with grace and humor. Today he sounded almost angry.

Hack: I didn’t hear Alliss during the broadcast, but I did hear him sign off. He sounded shattered, as most of the west coast of Scotland was.

Van Sickle: Maybe ABC had too many cooks in the kitchen. Besides Baker-Finch and Azinger, there was Curtis Strange and Tom Weiskopf, too. Except for Azinger, none of them got the chance to expand on any points. Strange seemed a little edgier than he used to be, which I liked. It’s also got to be a little embarrassing for ABC, which largely ignored Cink until the last four or five holes.

Manage your game, on and off the course, with SI GOLFNation — Join Now!

Friedman: As I said elsewhere on the site, ABC ignored everyone but the top five on the leader board. We never saw the folks in the pack who might be gaining. Obviously, they had to stay on Watson, but just by looking online you could see there was stuff happening behind him.

Dusek: Did you get the feeling that ABC loved the idea of having Chris Wood in the mix? They certainly jumped as he made his move around the turn.

Morfit: Chris Wood has cool Muppet hair.

Van Sickle: He’s the adult Beaker.

Friedman: I swear Wood looks like Beckham. Even wanted to play for Bristol City.

Dusek: Evidently his allegiances have changed: He’s got a Manchester United headcover on his 3-wood.

Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Does Watson play the PGA at Hazeltine? A ceremonial U.S. Open run at Pebble Beach in 2010? More PGA Tour events? Or does he realize his chances on non-links courses are slim to none?

Hack: It’s amazing what the conversation would have been had Watson won.
Should Couples pick him for the Presidents Cup team? What about his chances at the PGA in August? Where does he fit in the hierarchy of greatest players of all time? Sure a lot of the talk would have been silly, but it would have been interesting talk anyway.

Herre: I can answer the one about next month’s PGA — no way.

Dusek: As he said himself, on a links course he can compete, but on a 7,500-yard monster that won’t allow him to run the ball up to the green, no chance.

Shipnuck: Pebble is short and can play very fast. Watson could definitely have a good showing there. But the greens aren’t nearly as flat as Turnberry’s, which precludes a chance to contend.

Van Sickle: If a guy can contend at 59, maybe he can contend at 60, but Watson needs a course that plays tough due to the wind, not length. The Old Course next year can be dominated by length. This was probably Tom’s Last Stand although I hope I’m wrong. I love watching him play golf.

Hack: Watson all but ruled out his chances at St. Andrews. He said if there is a west wind, he won’t be able to play well because the fourth hole gives him trouble. He compared it to trying to tackle the 10th hole at Bethpage in 2002, when so much of the field couldn’t reach the fairway.

Lipsey: As great as Watson played, his grace and class and eloquence were maybe more admirable than what he did on the course.

Hack: Watson said near the end of his presser that he wanted to be remembered by his peers as a guy who was a truly great golfer. I couldn’t help but wonder how he feels about his legacy in all. It’s always been Jack and Arnie, or Tiger Tiger Tiger, or the Hogan Mystique, or Lord Byron, or Gary Player and his 2 million sit-ups. Watson’s probably felt somewhat slighted, his eight majors notwithstanding. That’s my 2-cent Charlie Brown psychoanalysis.

Evans: Tom Watson is probably angry at himself about the 72nd hole, but I don’t think he’s speculating about his place in history. You can’t play that well over 71 holes and be thinking about your legacy. He still thinks he can win.

Van Sickle: Watson was feted as a superstar in his prime in the ’80s every bit as much as Jack. But because he started playing (and putting) badly, he was somewhat forgotten in the ’90s. It was interesting to see him at the Open every year, where he was revered by the Scots, and then come back to a U.S. event, where he was not seen as a big deal. He was the last real superstar after Nicklaus until Tiger came around, although Nick Faldo had a great run. Norman was a media superstar and a great player but didn’t build a superstar’s record in the majors.
Watson’s legacy is safe with those who lived the ’70s and ’80s.

Van Sickle: Is Lee Westwood going to get off easy for his finish? He had a mix of good shots and nervous shots coming in and cost himself a chance to at least be in the playoff.

Hack: Lee Westwood is Stewart Cink, circa 2001.

Herre: Westwood blew it on 18 by rushing his final putt, thinking he was out of it, just like Cink did at Southern Hills.

Shipnuck: I was in the Winged Foot locker room with Phil and in the Augusta parking lot with Kenny Perry, and I’ve never seen anyone as gutted as Westwood was Sunday. He wandered around the locker room in a daze, at one point standing in front of a fridge for 15 seconds or so, staring at all the free drinks. Then he walked away without taking one. There were a half dozen players and caddies in there at the same time and it was dead silent and unbelievably awkward. When I left, Westwood was laying on a bench, rubbing his face over and over, trying to take deep breaths.

Dusek: Westwood is certainly going to feel like he could have-should have won at Turnberry, but think about a lot of the pre-tournament favorites and what they did. Tiger missed the cut. Paul Casey was a non-factor. Ian Poulter was dead last for a few minutes and was busy Tweeting about Open outfits on Sunday. A lot of players have a lot of soul searching to do.

Shipnuck: Westwood will take the biggest hit, but other goats include Jim Furyk, who began Sunday -1 and then bogeyed 7 of the first 16 holes and signed for a 76. Ernie Els made a nice run and could have posted a good score early but, typically, he bogeyed three of the last seven holes. And Goosen began -2 and was still in it until bogeying 12 and doubling 15.

Van Sickle: How about Tiger Woods? His swing was off and got exposed in the winds. How shocking was that?

Hack: While I’ve always known it, I’ve (re)learned that winning Tour events and winning majors are completely different animals, even for the No. 1 player in the world. Tiger’s game — for whatever reason — wasn’t ready to win at Augusta, Bethpage and Turnberry.

Evans: Tiger acted like a spoiled child this week, slamming clubs and cursing. He is in complete denial if he thinks his swing is in the best shape of his career. I don’t care if he wins another five times this year, he won’t win a major as long as he continues to place so much pressure on himself at the majors. Right now they mean too much to him.

Herre: You might be right, Farrell. As Tiger gets closer to Jack’s total of 18 he could be pressing.

Van Sickle: Maybe he’s pressing, maybe he isn’t. But one thing he isn’t doing this
year is getting closer to 18 major championships. And I agree that Tiger didn’t distinguish himself with his behavior. Let me know when you see Tom Watson slam a driver into the tee box. That’s part of why Tiger is a great champion and historic athlete but still not beloved. In that area, he’s no Jack, Arnie, Gary or Tom. Maybe not even Phil.

Manage your game, on and off the course, with SI GOLFNation — Join Now!