Time running out for Tom Watson at British Open

By Doug FergusonJuly 20, 2009, 4:00 pm
135th Open Championship TURNBERRY, Scotland ' Tom Watson was among the British Open champions whom the R&A consulted when it decided the game was getting younger and it was time to lower the age limit to 60 for winners of golfs oldest championship.
 
It might be time to reconsider.
 
Imagine how much different that conversation would have been had the Royal & Ancient seen a performance for the ages at Turnberry, where a 59-year-old Watson was in the lead the final three days and came within an 8-foot putt of winning.
 
Im sure if someone at age 59 had been winning the championship, bringing down the age limit would have been lower on the agenda, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said Monday. But we brought down the age limit in order to give more spaces in the championship to younger players allegedly in their prime to compete.
 
Watson sure looked in prime time at Turnberry.
 
Perhaps more people should have paid attention on the eve of the British Open when Watson spoke in reverent tones about his affection for Turnberry, where he had won 32 years earlier in the famous Duel in the Sun against Jack Nicklaus. He explained all week why he can still complete on links courses that require shots to be struck pure, not necessarily with power.
 
Watson wound up beating all but one player in the field.
 
Tiger Woods didnt even make it to the weekend, hitting the ball poorly into a northwest wind during a pivotal stretch along the coast. Two-time defending champion Padraig Harrington was never a factor, finishing 14 shots behind.
 
Stewart Cink, a worthy champion who closed with a 69, still needed help from the old man. Watsons 8-iron on the 18th had just enough bounce to roll off the back of the green. In the playoff, Watson looked his age for the first time and lost by six shots.
 
It would have been a hell of a story, Watson said. It wasnt meant to be. And, yes, its a great disappointment. It tears at your gut, as it always has torn at my gut. Its not easy to take.
 
Cink was too young to remember Watsons victory at Turnberry, although he played a practice round with him at the Masters this year and was struck by how cleanly Watson hit the ball. Playing against him when it counted as more impressive.
 
The same Tom Watson that won this tournament in 77 showed up here this week, Cink said. And he just about did it. He beat everybody but one guy. And it was really special.
 
The yellow scoreboard towered over the 18th green beneath a blue Scottish sky on a quiet Monday morning. The traditional message in red letters had yet to be removed, a somber reminder of who didnt win the British Open.
 
Well played Stewart. See you at St. Andrews 2010.
 
Cink will arrive at the home of golf with the silver claret jug.
 
Barring another turn-back-the-clock moment, Watson will go to St. Andrews next year for a farewell party.
 
The British Open is the only major that sets an age limit for its champions. The U.S. Open gives only a 10-year exemption, while the Masters and PGA Championship offer their winners a chance to play as long as they want.
 
Augusta National announced an age limit of 65 this decade when its former champions began quitting after one round, sometimes even sooner. The club backed off, however, and the age limit was never imposed. The Masters left it up to their champions to decide when it was best to stop playing.
 
Theres no reason that couldnt work at the British Open.
 
Watson is the first to concede he doesnt have the length or the skills to compete at the Masters. He has not made the cut since 2002, nor has he broken 70 in the last 12 years. Rarely do former champions over 50 compete in the PGA Championship.
 
The British Open, held on links golf courses, is the only major where age shouldnt matter.
 
Its great to see the names of the past competing, Dawson said. But I do think its important that we see them in a state where they are reasonably competitive. We dont want it to become a procession. It still has to be a golf championship.
 
This nearly was a coronation when Watson finished.
 
Tom Lehman went back onto the course to watch Watson, not wanting to miss a chance to see history. Justin Leonard, another former Open champion, returned to the 18th green as the man he called the King of the Links sought one more par for the victory.
 
I dont think we contemplated a 59-year-old leading the Open Championship going into the back nine on the final day, Dawson said. And every year after the Open, we look at the exemptions. No doubt, well look at this one. Its much too early to say what, if anything, well do with it. But well certainly be looking at it.
 
Watson, meanwhile, headed south to Sunningdale for the Senior British Open to compete against men his own age. His runner-up finish at Turnberry moved him to No. 105 in the world rankings. He is No. 108 in the FedEx Cup standings, ahead of Sergio Garcia.
 
Neither of those matter to Watson.
 
The British Open does.
 
Watsons only hope of playing the Open after next year is to finish among the top 10 at St. Andrews. If that doesnt work, he would have to win the Senior British Open the following week.
 
Unless, of course, he wins at St. Andrews.
 
I still have some of the shots to be able to play that golf course, Watson said. Well just have to see.
 
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