Elementary, My Dear Watson

I had decided yesterday to use this headline regardless of the result in the history-making run by Tom Watson at becoming, among other things, the oldest golfer ever to win a major championship.  The famous Sherlock Holmes quote was first used to describe Watson’s amazing skill on the links en route to claiming his first British Open Championship by the brilliant English broadcast commentator Peter Arliss.  Arliss employed a unique vocabulary for his profession quite artfully.  Back when I was a “weekend duffer”, my friends and I would take turns imitating him ─ after each of our respective shots ─ as we played our pathetically inept rounds of golf:  “Oh, that is a bold undertaking indeed.  He takes a full rip at it with a driver, right into the teeth of the wind!  That’s a treacherous little putt he has left…” and so on.  We had a lot of fun, in a juvenile way, with our British accents nearly as bad as our games.

For people in their late-thirties and, particularly past forty, athletic prowess has rarely been world-class competitive.  Especially with indisputable proof of being free of performance enhancing drugs.  The body gives out, not all at once but imperceptibly slowly to most.  This is, of course, not true of professional athletes whose performance and statistics are under microscopic scrutiny at all times.  

Even as a child I always rooted for the oldsters; knowing the obvious fact that, if I was lucky, I’d be old too someday.  So, when I was a little kid, there was George “The Fossil” Blanda, the oldest player ever to play in an NFL game aged 48 years, 109 days.  He was a quarterback until he was 43 and a kicker during and after.  The only NFL player to appear in games in four different decades, having debuted in 1949 and finishing the 1975 season with an appearance in the AFC Championship game.  He was good the whole time, too.  Later there would be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was playing on a championship Lakers team at the age of 42.  The Lakers played three consecutive NBA Finals in his last three years, winning the first two.  Baseball, a team sport easier on the body, had always had players in their 40’s, most of them pitchers and pinch/designated hitters.  Many of them played in The World Series.  So there were and still are old guys I can root for, but none like “Satchel” Paige (who was still playing, at 59, in 1965, before I was old enough to be aware).  Paige, widely considered the best pitcher who ever lived, was excluded from Major League Baseball until he was 42, because he was an African-American.  He became the oldest rookie in MLB history.  Such were his talents that he remained effective into his fifties.  Therefore, there is a single example of an athlete past fifty who was still competitive in a major American sport.  But in team sports, like in the case of “Satchel” Paige, one may never get to play for a championship based on one’s own merits.  

Golf and tennis are two sports where the greatest glory is achieved by individual effort.  Given the predisposition I’ve described, one can imagine my glee, in 1986, when Jack Nicklaus became the oldest Master’s champion at the age of 46.  Last year, I got to root twice for men who would defy decrepitude: Rocco Mediate and later, for Greg “The Shark” Norman, both of whom made deep runs at becoming elderly champions at a golf major.  

Rocco Mediate, 45, threatened against the number one player in the world, Tiger Woods, at last year’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.  Woods, being Woods ─ even with a blown-out knee ─ added another amazing clutch putt to his résumé on the final hole of the tournament forcing an 18-hole playoff (the rules of this major call for a full round the following day to determine the winner).  When Tiger sank that putt I considered the playoff contest between the world’s 1st ranked and the world’s 158th ranked to be merely a formality.  Well, supreme nice-guy Rocco surprised the world at large by continuing to play brilliantly, if unevenly, finishing the playoff in a tie and ultimately losing in a sudden death continuation on the 91st hole played.  

In The Open Championship ─ which is how the British like to refer to their sole major, a right I think is indisputably theirs as the earliest practitioners of such an event ─ “The Shark” looked poised, at 53, to become the oldest golfer ever to win a major.  (That record is apparently vigilantly defended by the ghost of Julius Boros, who won the 1968 PGA Championship at the age of 48.)  Greg Norman is simply the manliest player who was ever great.  Whether it was strategically necessary or not, he always aimed right at the pin.  He had one of the hugest and purest swings ever seen and he was ranked number one for 331 weeks.  Also one of the unluckiest players in history, he was robbed of victory by incomprehensible “miracle shots” so many times that his peers jokingly told him in the clubhouse: “Stay away from me, man.  You’re snakebit!”  His great golf more than a decade behind, he shocked the planet by becoming the oldest 54-hole leader in a major.  Leading by two strokes going into the last round, he suffered a meltdown that left him settling for a tie for third place.  Two bummers in a row for lovers of the geriatric.  But what just happened in Scotland are the most stunning development and the cruelest blow to those who would steadfastly ward-off “the home for the aged”.

No one seriously entertained that Tom Watson could contend for his sixth title at The Open Championship, less than two months shy of his 60th birthday, despite being the greatest links player of a very long era in golf.  He was ranked below number 1300 in the world going in.  He himself planned/was scheduled to miss the cut and be in the commentator’s booth for the final two days as an expert (a five-time champion who got one of those titles at this year’s course, Turnberry in 1977).  Or so they all thought.  (Actually, Watson was being cagey as to what he thought his chances were of still being in the match on the weekend).  Watson set a record on each day for being the oldest player to lead a major.  At the end of 54 holes he had sole possession of a one-stroke lead.  He had completed the third round with a one-over-par 71.  (Not that it was great prescience, but I did say to my best friend and former golf-buddy Mike, “71 might be good enough if he can just do that again tomorrow.”  It turned out to be the exact score necessary for Watson to win.)

The atmosphere was surreal as the 59 year-old legend arrived at the last tee with the Claret Jug (the champion’s trophy) within his grasp.  Moments later, it seemed every spectator in the gallery groaned in unison as Mr. Watson missed the putt of his life on the final hole of regulation to card a bogey.  He had just opened the door to a four-hole playoff with the eventual winner Stewart Cink.  I was and still am crestfallen.  He lost a most valiant battle.  He competed for the title of “all-time geezer in a major sport” (a record that would most likely stand until Tiger Woods reaches the age of 60).  He legitimately contended for a major championship until the very last.  He nearly schooled all those whippersnappers.  As he said: “It would have been a hell of a story.”  It still is one I’ll never forget.  But, as has been observed by many a financially successful player in the shadow of a champion, “Nobody remembers who came in second.”  

Watson stood at the final tee with a one-stroke lead, needing to score a four (par) to win.  He had a perfect drive.  Later he would describe how, on his second shot at the18th hole (72nd of the tournament), his ball came to rest off the green.  He hit an eight-iron he thought he struck perfectly.  (It looked great; it was right on-line but didn’t land soft enough).    I thought: “Not a problem for Watson,” [who had a brilliant short-game all week].  He just needs to get close and sink a putt for victory.”  His next two shots were the most painful to watch I’ve witnessed.  Unfortunately, he didn’t get close enough on his third stroke and missed the remaining eight-footer.  He scored five.  One man’s cinq is another man’s sunk.  

In what was clearly an agonizing post-tournament press conference, Tom Watson fielded journalists’ questions with candor and grace.
 
Asked how it feels he said: “It tears at your gut as it always does.  It always did tear at my gut.”

Asked if, at his age, fatigue was a factor in the four-hole playoff loss: “It looked like it, didn’t it?  …It didn’t feel like it.”

“Before coming to Turnberry did you really think you had a chance?” another asked.
 
“It was almost…The dream almost came true.  I don’t like to go to Augusta [Augusta National, home course of The Masters]… I feel like a ceremonial golfer there…  But out here I have a chance; I knew I had a chance.”

Indeed!  There is no joy in Mudville.

Footnote:
There was an Olympic Gold Medalist, Oscar Swahn, in a shooting (marksmanship) event who in 1912, at 64, became the oldest Olympian so honored but, although technically a sport, it doesn’t require much physicality.    

I had decided to use the headline either way for this history-making run by Tom Watson at becoming, among other things, the oldest golfer ever to win a major championship. The famous Sherlock Holmes quote was first used to describe Watson’s amazing skill on the links en route to claiming his first British Open Championship by the brilliant English broadcast commentator Peter Arliss.  Arliss employed a unique vocabulary for his profession quite artfully.  My friends and I would take turns imitating him as we would play our pathetically inept rounds:  “Oh, that is a bold undertaking indeed.  He takes a full rip at it with a driver, right into the teeth of the wind!  That’s a treacherous little putt he has left…” and so on.  We had a lot of fun this way, with British accents nearly as bad as our games.

For people in their late-thirties and, particularly past forty, athletic prowess has rarely been world-class competitive.  Especially with indisputable proof of being free of performance enhancing drugs.  The body gives out, not all at once but imperceptibly slowly to most.  This is, of course, not true of professional athletes whose performance and statistics are under microscopic scrutiny at all times.  

Even as a child I always rooted for the oldsters; knowing the obvious fact that, if I was lucky, I’d be old too someday.  So, when I was a little kid, there was George “The Fossil” Blanda, the oldest player ever to play in an NFL game aged 48 years, 109 days.  He was a quarterback until he was 43 and a kicker during and after.  The only NFL player to appear in games in four different decades, having debuted in 1949 and finishing the 1975 season with an appearance in the AFC Championship game.  He was good the whole time too.  Later there would be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was playing on a championship Lakers team at the age of 42.  The Lakers played three consecutive NBA Finals in his last three years, winning the first two.   Baseball, a team sport easier on the body, had always had players in their 40’s, most of them pitchers and pinch/designated hitters.  Many of them played in The World Series.  So there were and still are old guys I can root for, but none like “Satchel” Paige (who was still playing, at 59, in 1965, before I was old enough to be aware).  Paige, widely considered the best pitcher who ever lived, was excluded from Major League Baseball until he was 42, because he was an African-American.  He became the oldest rookie in MLB history.  Such were his talents that he remained effective into his fifties.  Therefore, there is a single example of an athlete past fifty who was still competitive in a major American sport.  But in team sports, like in the case of “Satchel Paige”, one may never get to play for a championship based on one’s own merits.  Golf and tennis are two sports where the greatest glory is achieved by individual effort.  Given the predisposition I’ve described, one can imagine my glee, in 1986, when Jack Nicklaus became the oldest Master’s champion at the age of 46.

Last year, I got to root twice for men who would defy decrepitude: Rocco Mediate and later, for Greg “The Shark” Norman, both of whom made deep runs at becoming elderly champions at a golf major.  Rocco Mediate, 45, threatened against the number one player in the world, Tiger Woods, at last year’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.  Woods, being Woods (even with a blown-out knee), added another amazing clutch putt to his résumé on the final hole of the tournament forcing an 18-hole playoff (the rules of this major call for a full round the following day to determine the winner).  When Tiger sank that putt I considered the playoff contest between the world’s 1st ranked and the world’s 158th ranked to be merely a formality.  Well, supreme nice-guy Rocco surprised the world at large by continuing to play brilliantly, if unevenly, finishing the playoff in a tie and ultimately losing in a sudden death continuation on the 91st hole played.  In The Open Championship (which is how the British like to refer to their sole major, a right I think is indisputably theirs as the earliest practitioners of such an event) “The Shark” looked poised, at 53, to become the oldest golfer ever to win a major.  That record is apparently vigilantly defended by the ghost of Julius Boros, who won the 1968 PGA Championship at the age of 48.  Greg Norman is simply the manliest player who was ever great.  Whether it was strategically necessary or not, he always aimed right at the pin.  He had one of the hugest and purest swings ever seen and he was ranked number one for 331 weeks.  Also one of the unluckiest players in history, he was robbed of victory by incomprehensible “miracle shots” so many times that his peers jokingly told him in the clubhouse: “Stay away from me, man.  You’re snakebit!”  His great golf more than a decade behind, he shocked the world by becoming the oldest 54-hole leader in a major.  Leading by two strokes going into the last round, he suffered a meltdown that left him settling for a tie for third place.  Two bummers in a row for lovers of the geriatric.  But what just happened in Scotland are the most stunning development and the cruelest blow to those who would steadfastly ward-off “the home for the aged”.

No one seriously entertained that Tom Watson could contend for his sixth title at the British Open, less than two months shy of his 60th birthday, despite being the greatest links player of a very long era in golf.  He was ranked below number 1300 in the world going in.  He himself planned/was scheduled to miss the cut and be in the commentator’s booth for the final two days as an expert (a five-time champion who got one of those titles at this year’s course, Turnberry in 1977).  Or so they all thought.  (Actually, Watson was being cagey as to what he thought his chances were of still being in the match on the weekend).  But Watson set a record on each day for being the oldest player to lead a major.  At the end of 54 holes he had sole possession of a one-stroke lead.  He had completed the third round with a one-over-par 71.  (Not that it was great prescience, but I did say to my best friend and former golf buddy Mike, “71 might be good enough if he can just do that again tomorrow.”  It turned out to be the exact score necessary for Watson to win.)

I am crestfallen.  Mr. Watson missed a putt on the final hole of regulation to card a bogey and opened the door to a four-hole playoff with the eventual winner Stewart Cink.  He lost a most valiant battle.  He competed for the title of “all-time geezer in a major sport”, legitimately contending for a major championship until the very end.  He nearly schooled all those whippersnappers.  He came to the final hole with a one-stroke lead, needing to score a four (par) to win.  He had a perfect drive.  Later he would describe how on the 18th hole (72nd of the tournament) he flew the green with an eight-iron he thought he struck perfectly (it was right on-line but long).  I thought: “Not a problem for Watson,” [who had a brilliant short-game all week].  He just needs to get close and sink a putt for victory.”  Unfortunately, he didn’t get close enough and missed the remaining eight-footer.  He scored five.  One man’s cinq is another man’s sank.

In what was clearly an agonizing post-tournament press conference, Tom Watson fielded journalists’ questions with candor and grace.
 
Asked how it feels he said: “It tears at your gut as it always does.  It always did tear at my gut.”

Asked if, at his age, fatigue was a factor in the four-hole playoff loss: “It looked like it, didn’t it?  It didn’t feel like it.”

“Before coming to Turnberry did you really think you had a chance?” another asked.
 
“It was almost…The dream almost came true.  I don’t like to go to Augusta [Augusta National, home course of The Masters]… I feel like a ceremonial golfer there…  But out here I have a chance, I knew I had a chance.”

Indeed!  There is no joy in Mudville.

 
 
 
Footnote:
There was an Olympic Gold Medalist, Oscar Swahn, in a shooting (marksmanship) event who in 1912, at 64, became the oldest Olympian so honored but, although technically a sport, it doesn’t require much physicality.    

 

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