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Tom Watson keeps defeat in perspective

Two days after his agonizing loss in the British Open, the almost-60-year-old American admits to 'quite a vacuum in the stomach.'

July 22, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

SUNNINGDALE, ENGLAND — Some 44 hours later, Tom Watson was about 350 miles southeast of his last 18th hole on Tuesday afternoon, standing beside a deeply green inland course near London and speaking proficient chitchat.

The man who almost won the British Open up on Scotland's Ayrshire Coast, with a replaced hip and at an age seven weeks shy of 60, called over to fellow British Senior Open entrants Ronnie Black and Phil Blackmar as they rehearsed bunker shots, wondering what they tried to do over there. Blackmar barked back that he'd like to emulate Watson's every flawless swing from the heady but haunted Sunday gone by.

They chortled a bit about Black's snaring some of Blackmar's money in that practice bunker, and had you just plopped in from a quiet weekend retreat you never would have guessed that the initiator of the gabfest had "quite a vacuum in the stomach."

Yet he did, for here stood a man just two days removed from striking a virtuoso eight-iron approach on No. 18 with a one-shot lead in a British Open and thinking, This may be mine, only to have it become somebody else's mostly because the mutinous thing somehow rolled all the way through the green.

He collegially lined his series of interviews with words that become familiar in these situations, including "bittersweet" and "hurt" and the dreaded "uh-oh," his recollection of his reaction when that ball toppled off the back.

"I'm kind of over the sleepless first night," he said, the night spent in the officially titled Tom Watson Suite at the Turnberry Hotel, just up a staircase from the Ailsa Course that staged the charm and wonder and serenity that carried through four days only to get ripped away in one last, malicious hour.

"I was in bed," Watson said of Sunday night, "and it was dark when I went to sleep and it was dark" when he stirred awake. "If you know the Scottish summer, you have about three hours of dark."

Giving and receiving consolation helped some after the worthy Stewart Cink had won in a four-hole playoff.

To his agonizing 26-year-old son Michael, Watson had recollected a hybrid he'd hit at No. 13 on Friday, one he unwittingly pushed just far enough that it missed its aim, which would have been a pot bunker. "I put it in perspective like that to my son, who was really distraught," Watson said. "I think it helped soothe him some. And maybe it was a little bit of catharsis to me, too."

From his friends Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, he received reassurance in a telephone call from Florida.

Watson: "Jack said . . . 'Watson, that's the first time I ever sat down and watched all 18 holes of any golf tournament, any golf tournament.' He said I couldn't have played the 18th hole any better. It was just -- it wasn't there. And he said, 'You played the right shot with the putter.' That soothed me a little bit. Good friend."

The putter, of course, referred to Watson's third shot on No. 18, the one from the collar on the downward slope behind the green, the one he knocked upward and wayward to leave a nine-foot par putt he subsequently shanked. He thought he hit that first putt too hard, and so it joined the shots that resurfaced Tuesday at Sunningdale Golf Club, even if it didn't match the approach shot for poignancy.

That shot had come up Monday morning on the southbound flight, when Watson asked friend, TV commentator and two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North just where that eight-iron had landed.

North: "Tom, it landed one foot onto the surface, over the knob, one foot onto the surface."

Watson: "So it had the whole length of the green to stop. That's where I was trying to hit it. I was trying to hit it 164 yards, right there. It just didn't stop."

To assuage that cruelty, messages have flooded in, Watson said, "from people all over the world," such that he'll need to "call my IT guy at the tour and ask him, 'How do I get rid of a lot of the things that are stored in there so that I can receive the e-mails that I received?' "

The most affecting, he said, came from war veterans, some of whom Watson visited in Iraq in fall 2007 on a trip with golf representatives David Feherty, Howard Twitty, Tom Lehman, Joe Inman and Butch Harmon.

"There was one message from a young man by the name of Petry, Leroy Petry, who is up for the congressional Medal of Honor," Watson said, "and who saved a bunch of lives by taking a pretty direct hit from a grenade he was trying to throw, and it went off right by his hand.

"That's perspective."

He'll try to take it through this tournament, then to the U.S. Senior Open near Indianapolis, but not, he said, to the PGA Championship in August in Minnesota, for which he qualified with his British Open runner-up showing.

Clearly, after such aching proximity to what fellow senior golfer Sam Torrance said "would have been the greatest sporting achievement of all time," and after finishing with what Torrance reckoned was "right up there" anyway, Watson will talk, an act known to help heal profound disappointment.

He talked and talked and talked Tuesday, and at one point you could see him inside the media center sitting at a desk doing phone interviews as raindrops plucked the window.

At another point, you could hear him say on yet another phone interview, "an almost-great story."

As he chatted in the room afterward, you could hear his suitable impersonation of the voice of the late Walter Cronkite.

You'd almost never know his gut hurt.


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