WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – Tom Watson emerged from a small room after signing his scorecard, a contrite smile on his weather-worn face after posting the second of three consecutive under-par rounds in a PGA Tour event this past weekend. It was just another day in the life for the 64-year-old, no big deal for a man who has gotten accustomed to age-defying performances.
He fiddled with a valuables pouch that held his watch and some lip balm, finding the drawstring a bit too finicky.
“This bag is getting old,” he said aloud to himself. “Just like me. I’m an old bag.”
Age is a relative term, but in comparison with his fellow competitors at The Greenbrier Classic, he was right. He’s old.
Not that it matters, but he’s 14 years older than anyone else who made the cut; he’s 29 years older than Jimmy Walker, one of his Ryder Cup players who missed it; and he’s 36 years older than Webb Simpson, a major champion who played with him over the first two rounds – and got beat.
“The thing that struck me most was that nothing really fazed him,” Simpson observed. “He hit it over the green a couple of times and he never said a word. He’d just go to his ball and hit it.”
Maybe that’s the secret. Or maybe he’s been bathing in the Fountain of Youth.
That might be the only way to rationalize just how impressive it is that Watson can still hang with the flatbellies, but let’s try a few other ways of putting it into perspective.
He’s so old that his first career PGA Tour start – the 1971 Kaiser International Open – was won by Billy Casper, who hasn’t won anything in almost 40 years.
He’s so old that on the day of his first career top-10 finish, Johnny Unitas led the Colts to a win and Joe Namath threw for 301 yards in a Jets' loss.
He’s so old that if he wins another event, he'll be the oldest winner ever – on the Champions Tour.
He’s so old that he’s reached an age which The Beatles once chose as the line of demarcation to symbolize when life starts coming to a withering finale.
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?
Five years ago next week, Watson nearly won the Open Championship.
We all remember the story: A nervy putt from behind the final green in regulation led to an even nervier second putt. By the time he reached the first hole of a playoff against Stewart Cink, the outcome was a veritable inevitability. We'd officially been robbed of witnessing one of the greatest athletic achievements in – dare I say it? – sports history.
At the time, it was assumed Watson would contemplatively walk off into the Ailsa Craig sunset – figuratively, at least, if not also literally – and live his remaining days as simply a legend of the game. In the past tense, not the present.
He might not, like a bad wine-and-cheese analogy, be getting better with age, but he’s certainly not getting any worse.
This past week, Watson finished in a share of 35th place. It follows a made cut here last year and another the year before.
When asked to contemplate his own timelessness this past weekend, he dismissed these successes as the result of being the head pro emeritus at the resort. He waved it off as just knowing the course really well. He even chalked it up to a little luck.
Never once, though, did he allow himself to ponder how he’s able to compete against players two and three times younger than him.
Others were more than happy to reflect on their own career longevity, though – or lack thereof.
“I can’t see myself doing it in 20 years,” David Toms, 47, said with a laugh. “I’m hoping I’ll be in a boat on a lake in 20 years, but he’s out here grinding. It says a lot about how much he loves the game.”
“It would be fun to still be playing 15 years from now,” explained Jeff Maggert, 50. “He knows he can still play well. His health is good, he still has the length and obviously he still enjoys the game.”
Watson left his fellow players and the rest of us to marvel at him once again this past weekend. He never, at least not publicly, marveled at his own productivity. He never outwardly looked surprised at what he’d accomplished.
The most he allowed was just minutes after fiddling with that finicky valuables pouch and calling himself an old bag. He was asked if he could let himself think about how remarkable it really is that he can compete at the age of 64.
“Well,” he said with that same contrite smile, “I don't know how remarkable it is.”
That’s too bad. He might be the only one who doesn’t.