The ball doesn't know how old you are, neither does the golf course or the wind. Thanks to Tom Watson, I will no longer say, "It's hell getting old." I have the pleasure of playing and working at Watson's first American design, Cassique, at the Kiawah Island Club, in South Carolina. The course is a links-style layout as timeless as Watson, and it is heavenly to play.
The commentators keep saying that 59-year-old Watson has found the fountain of youth, but the young guns spraying the ball through the winds of Turnberry don't have the wealth of wisdom or the experience of winning that Tom Watson owns. You don't just suddenly find that stuff, it is earned over time.
For three days Tom speaks with the certainty of knowing he can win, his eyes gleam with a powerful yet calming sense of confidence, his walk is poised and his attitude is modest. But there's a spirit in his soul. He has the the images of his 1977 win over Jack Nicklaus at the Ailsa course, and he has won this championship five times. He knows to play the ball on the ground, and keep it out of the hay. He plays one shot at a time and he can stay in the moment.
As the final round begins, Tom appears a bit tentative in the putting stroke that has kept him leading wire-to-wire. He drops two shots in his first three holes. "Come on Tom, You're the Comeback Kid, you never leave a putt short because you know you always make it coming back. With plenty of holes left, be patient, heaven can wait."
As Tom leaves a birdie putt just short on No. 4, Ross Fisher, up ahead on No. 5 and now leading the Open, is still trying to get out of the long grass. Once out, Fisher's third shot flies high left and the wind actually takes the ball behind him. After the fifth, Fisher is once again behind Watson, who flawlessly carries the ball onto the fifth green as if it's heaven-sent, just like Stewart Cink's shot into 18 green, and Lee Westwood's shot into 17. Cink ties Watson with a birdie at 18, and Westwood has a very makeable eagle putt on 17, but settles for birdie to go to 2-under again.
As Tom hits his second into 17, he knew immediately he hit it too far, rolling just past the hole, one foot into the thick rough. Wouldn't it be heaven if he could chip it in, like he did on 17 at Pebble Beach to win the US Open in 79? He chooses to putt, takes birdie and a one shot lead into 18. My legs are feeling numb, my stomach churning like hell as I watch history in the making.
Is Tom's gut churning too? With a perfect drive into 18 fairway, seems he is on cloud nine as he strolls toward his second shot, 187 yards to the green. With the wind, an 8-iron puts him over the green, his ball sitting in the rough just off the fringe. Please God, send an angel to watch over old Tom as he putts it up the hill to the cup. He hits it too hard and it goes eight feet past. Then, out of nowhere, he is too tentative and leaves it short. What the hell?
After a four-hole playoff with Cink, the goddess of victory swooshed in and took the Claret Jug out of Watson's grasp. This will not only be the Open that Cink won, but the Open that Tom Watson almost won. As Tom said it best, "It was a hell of a week and would have made a hell of a story." Well, it was a hell of a story, and it was heavenly.
Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher Carol Preisinger is director of instruction at the Kiawah Island Golf Club. To learn more about Carol, visit carolpreisinger.com.