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Final shots at the British Open

Golf breaks your heart and is designed to (from a note by Bart Giamatti speaking about baseball).

Today was an amazing and poignant episode in the saga of golf. All week at the British Open (The Open) played in Turnberry, Scotland, where golf was invented, there was an air of mystery and expectation brewing. First, Tiger Woods didn't make the cut, unheard of in his awesome track of the majors. That alone seemed to be destined to open the door for more unheard of circumstances. Tom Watson, at 59, seemed like a Zen master as he smoothly started at the lead of the tournament the first day and stayed there the entire time. With Tiger gone, the focus instantly became Tom Watson, winner of five British Open championships over 30 some years.

The fans adored him and expressed it, crowding his every shot. Watson became the oldest player ever to lead after 36 holes, and unbelievably after 54 holes and, get this, after 72 holes. But he didn't win. The only player to win more open titles was Harry Vardon, the great British golfer in the early 20th century who won six Opens in his lifetime. Vardon was the expected winner of the U.S. Open in 1913 when he came up against 21-year-old ex-caddy Francis Ouimet and his 12-year-old caddy in Brookline, Massachusetts, and lost to the young American. The first American to win the U.S. Open. This was memorialized in the epic film, The Greatest Game Ever Played.

The trophy, the famous silver "Claret jug," was his to take at the last hole of the 4-day 72-hole tournament. Out were Tiger, the Shark, Sergio, Daly, Furik and all the rest. Watson, a psychology major at Stanford, was quiet and collected, modest and spiritual in all his interviews. He looked like a Buddha. 

Golf, like no other sport, is played on an enormous field of earth, undulated, rough and trimmed, sandy and hilly, where the wind, rain, cold and heat change hourly to test, trick and surprise each shot, one day to the next the same hole is totally different requiring a new test of skill and interpretation of the elements. There is a statement in the rules regarding a "rub of the green." This means a circumstance that is unpredictable and unaccountable to any player but impacts the play, sometimes enormously. It could be a gust of wind. A stray rock in the bushes that causes your ball to bounce back onto the green from the woods. An infinite array of possibilities that presents itself like a poltergeist changing the luck and the outcome beyond any seeming fairness.

Today, on the last day, on the last hole, after Tom Watson's last drive down the middle of the fairway, he was sitting with a two-stroke lead over the field, 160 yards from the green, the pin and thousands of cheering fans. Tom was waiting for the players in front to finish their play before he shot his last shot to the green. The American pro Stewart Cink, the last player on the course other than Tom who was close and the only player not to have fallen by the wayside, and who had never won a major tournament in his life, stood before a 20-foot birdie putt and sank it, leaving him one shot behind Watson. Watson only needs to par the hole, shoot it on the green, make two putts and win.
Now, the sporting gods and the record keepers, the witnesses and the millions who were glued to Watson's last shot felt an earthly shot of adrenaline in the air. It was an epic moment, the elysian fields, the green on green on green of Scotland and whispering announcers who seemed to be choking off tears about to witness a once in a lifetime, no, a once ever phenomenon. 

Watson swings, a perfect swing, a shot glued to the flagstick on the green surrounded by thousands of fans, silence, the wind howling and the ball flying through it perfectly placed. The cameras on towers, the cameras in the hands of spectators all followed the ball flight as it came down on the front of the green lined up with the pin as if it would bounce and drop in, like we all thought the gods had ordained. 

But we remember that Turnberry Golf Course had been taken over during World War I and World War II as an airfield to train and send fighters off to the war in Europe. The course was leveled, hangers built, runways paved, bombs dropped, planes crashed, pilots killed in accidents and finally restored to a championship course that in 1979 was the site of its first British Open. It was the time when Nicklaus and Watson came out for the last 18 holes tied for the lead. Jack was the all-time leader and Watson a young challenger. Watson won at the last shot in the last hole to beat Jack and win the British Open. Now, with the second time the Open is played at Turnberry, Watson again stands to win with his last shot on the last day on the last hole tying the all-time record with six wins. 

The runways are still there, but all the rest had been bulldozed over after the war to bring the course back into championship condition. Tom Watson's last shot from a fairway lands on the front of the green and takes a large unexpected bounce as if there were something deep underground to challenge the roll and make the championship even more special. His ball rolls past the hole and over the green resting on the edge of some taller grass. The spectators rise on their feet, cheering for the new champion as he walks modestly across the green to examine the next shot. He now has two chances to win. He can putt the ball into the hole and win by two strokes, or putt the ball close to it as he is expected, having shown for 40 years to be the best at short shots around the green of any player in history, make the putt and win by one shot. 

Replay after replay shows the ball jumping off Watson's putter head and it scurries seven feet past the flagstick. Thousands are silent. The "rub of the green" has spoken twice asking the champion to be the strongest ever and sink the last shot of the entire tournament. All other players had finished all their shots, counted their scores and were watching the great Watson sink the last shot and change all the record books.  
Not to be, it seemed like the great Harry Vardon, from his grave rattled the hallowed ground and said, "My record will always stand." In a way it should, Vardon made the game what it is; he brought the game to America and showed the world the magic of dancing with nature on the grass. Watson missed the putt and ended up in a tie with Steward Cink and lost the playoff. Cink had four birdies in the last nine holes, birdying the 18th bringing him one shot behind Watson, with one hole to play. Watson bogied the hole dropping him to a tie for the championship and forcing a four-hole playoff.

Like the poem The One Hoss Shay, where all the parts fall apart at once after the last mile it runs, Watson seemed to have geared his time perfectly for 72 holes. Four more holes were too much. The cameras focused on his face as he walked up the 18th hole an hour later as the runner-up. His Buddha face had changed to that of a 59-year-old man. He was human after all. Cink hugged Watson on the green and the world didn't have a dry eye.
Sellers lives in Warren.


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