'You can write the story pretty easy,' said Watson, who shot a 6-over 78, including a 43 on the back nine. 'When I make double bogey at 11, a par-5 which is reachable in two today, that was a real wake-up call right there that the golf course wasn't going to give in very easily.'
Watson had finished second in three of the past five U.S. Senior Opens, but this time, he collapsed by losing eight strokes over the final eight holes as Brad Bryant won by shooting a 68 on Sunday to finish 6-under. Watson finished fourth, five strokes behind.
The breakdown began when Watson's third shot on the 11th bounced down into a greenside bunker. He chipped out to the fringe, then managed to three-putt for a 7.
The worst was still coming for Watson, who is now 0-for-8 in his attempts to win the high-profile Champions Tour major.
'I think if he drives the ball in the fairway at 11, he probably goes on to knock it up on the green in two and makes a birdie and goes on and wins the tournament,' said playing partner Loren Roberts, who finished third at 2-under. 'It seemed to me like 11 was such a body blow there and it compounded with a three-putt from just off the fringe. It just kind of took all the wind out of his sails.'
Watson, a five-time winner at the British Open with eight major victories on the PGA TOUR, also blew leads at this tournament in 2005 when Allen Doyle eventually came from nine strokes back to win and again in 2006.
Watson's collapse was the second largest in the U.S. Senior Open's 28-year history, behind Doyle's comeback.
Watson finally seemed to have this major in hand after his birdie on No. 10 moved him to 9-under par. Then came No. 11, and he bogeyed No. 12 and No. 13 when he missed a pair of short putts, the second lipping around the cup but staying out.
'It's a very special tournament for me and I had it in my grasp,' Watson said. 'I had the reins, and I lost the reins at 13.'
Even a nice save on the 14th didn't help Watson, who drove it behind a shrub on the par-4 15th hole.
'I hit the ball in the rough too many times, and today I got my just reward hitting the ball in the rough,' he said. 'I had to put the ball in the fairway today, and I didn't do it enough times. That was the killer for me.'
Herbert V. Kohler Jr. smiled broadly when he heard Tom Watson declare that Whistling Straits is 'about the prettiest golf course I've ever played.'
Kohler, whose Kohler Co. developed the course that hosted the U.S. Senior Open, said the compliment from the five-time British Open champion was a sweet one.
'Those are tall words, and I am humbled and honored,' said Kohler, who had Pete Dye design the course on the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan to honor the great links courses of Ireland and Scotland that host the British Open.
The grandeur and severity of Whistling Straits produced exciting golf for the Senior Open, with winds whipping up to an estimated 25 mph on Sunday.
Attendance, however, was slightly disappointing.
In 2004, a record 320,000 fans flocked to Whistling Straits for the PGA Championship.
The senior event drew 23,000 people Sunday and an estimated 118,000 for the tournament, but Kohler believes the dates of the Senior Open hurt attendance.
'It's difficult to pull people away from their homes on a Fourth of July weekend because it's such a big family weekend. So we're pleased we have drawn so many fans to watch these great golfers,' he said.
The PGA Championship returns to Whistling Straits in 2010 and 2015. The course is also scheduled to host the Ryder Cup in 2020.
About 2,500 volunteers greeted fans, chauffeured golfers and made sure the Senior Open ran smoothly even with temperatures reaching the mid-90s on Sunday afternoon.
Cindy Pfrang, part of a group of 15 non-paid staffers from the Quit Qui Oc Golf Club in nearby Elkhart Lake, Wis. helped direct traffic around the 10th tee.
After applying a year ago, Pfrang, from Mesa, Ariz., heard in October that her annual summer back in Wisconsin would include quieting the spectators as golfers teed off, helping give directions and holding back the crowd as the pros approached her area.
She said the experience was memorable.
'The golfers and the crowd are a lot of fun,' she said.
The volunteers paid $150 for their two embroidered U.S. Open shirts, a stylized rain jacket and a cap or headband. In return, they received free parking, daily food vouchers and a pass to watch golf after they completed their four-hour shifts.