Josh Nagel’s blog

July 23, 2009

No ground control for (another) major, Tom

As Tom Watson strolled up the 18th fairway Sunday to the deafening roars of the faithful golf fans in Turnberry, Scotland, you had a feeling we were about to see history.

Sensing the gravity of the moment, as any sports fan might, a couple of words came to mind as I watched Watson (who was +600 in the field at line up his 8-foot putt for the win in the British Open.

Please choke.

Make that five words.

Please, please, please, please choke.

This was asking a lot, because I knew most of the sports world was against me, including a warm-and-fuzzy ABC commentator who predicted Watson would sink the putt and win his ninth major title at age 59.

Then, as if I had scripted the outcome, Watson approached the putt with that dentist-chair-in-sight squeamishness to which we have become so accustomed while watching Shaq step to the free-throw line. His stroke also mirrored that of Shaq; no touch, no confidence, no chance.

Mission accomplished.

Although Watson’s miss didn’t technically end his British Open run, we all knew it was over. Similar to Derek Fisher’s 3-pointer that tied Game 4 of the NBA Finals at the end of regulation, Watson’s playoff against Stewart Cink was a mere formality, similar to the Lakers’ overtime walk-through against the Orlando Magic. 

Whew. With all due respect to Watson – and a guy with eight majors to his credit deserves his share – the last thing the golf establishment needs is another reason to give more unabashed glory to an old white guy. The thought of this makes me more ill than all those close-ups of the blotched, faded skin on the back of Watson’s neck, to which ABC so regretfully subjected its viewers.

Golf already is bent on deifying the ghosts of its past without any legitimate justification, and a win by Watson would have taken this shtick to unprecedented lows. The sport’s silent majority was still rolling on the putting green with laughter at the fact that the really famous black guy in the tournament missed the cut.

This gave them a chance to celebrate the British Open’s winner as a master of the “old school” style of golf. Well, when perfectly true tee shots hit the middle of the fairway, only to be sucked into an abyss of a bunker 40 yards out of view, this isn’t golf. It’s the old Atari video game “Pitfall” brought to life on a grassy knoll.

Given the alternative, I’ll take Tiger Woods and Anthony Kim smashing their drives 350 yards and drilling 50-foot putts any day of the week. Call me “new school” if you will, but don’t call me on Sunday at 6 a.m. to watch the British Open.

Handing over the “jug” that is bestowed upon the winner to a guy who needs to change his Depends after nine holes – six or seven on some days, it depends – would have effectively rolled golf’s clock back at least 20 years, and the sport’s “purists” would have put a death grip on the hands of time to keep it there indefinitely.

Golf doesn’t celebrate its past — it lives off it, present and future be damned. Never has an entity honored dudes who have both feet in the grave – or at least one – more than the local funeral home and the assisted-care facility with which it contracts business.

Whenever you watch The Masters or the British Open, the coverage is flooded with highlights and homage to past champions. Not last year’s champion, mind you, but endless, grainy reels of guys like Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and the like.

Without fail, one living member of the boys club is trotted out to take part in the tournament; inevitably, our living legend limps through a round of 97, and his triple-bogey on No. 18 is met with a standing ovation, as if this were some sort of accomplishment.

Really, it isn’t. Such deeply grounded golf traditions only prove that Arnold Palmer is, in fact, old. Watson’s near-miss in the British Open – though his choke on the final putt was anything but near – is a much more meaningful feat, but that doesn’t mean it’s something we couldn’t have lived without.

For instance, I’d be willing to bet that Rick Barry could beat LeBron James in a free-throw shooting contest today, but I wouldn’t turn on the TV to watch it. I’d also bet there’s no chance Barry could beat James at one-on-one, though I might watch the first couple of minutes just for kicks.

I’d like to tell you how badly I feel for Watson, but I don’t. Frankly, he was a little too self-indulgent for my taste. When his performance became the story of the British Open, he did everything he could to keep it that way. When was the last time you saw Tiger Woods lead the crowd in the wave, or visibly cry as the other guy sealed a victory?

In the end, Watson’s putt just didn’t have enough ground control to win another major, Tom. Although to his credit, he didn’t go down without a fight. I could have sworn I saw him replace the ball at least two inches ahead of where he marked it on hole No. 18 (I’ve never understood why golf allows this, seeing as it is physically impossible to place the ball in the exact same spot from which it was moved), and I’m pretty sure I saw Watson purposely break wind during Cink’s backswing on the first playoff hole.

But alas, it wasn’t meant to be. So instead of the jug going to a past-his-prime champion who looks like a dead ringer for William H. Macy minus the goofy powder blue sweater vest and pants, it went to an underachieving first-time winner who has lookalike qualities of his own.

The 36-year-old Cink, coincidentally, is a dead ringer for the third-place finisher, 36-year-old Lee Westwood, save for the goofy neon green sweater vest and cap. This merits mention because the loud attire is the only way to tell the two apart.

That, and the fact that the Alabama-born Cink was the one holding the trophy at the day’s end. I would have preferred watching it go to Westwood, because the England-born golfer at least would have given the tournament a quasi-homegrown champion around which you can build a decent story.

Even so, watching Cink break through and capture his first major still strikes me as more relevant than Watson choking, cheating, farting and crying. While the latter made for an interesting side show for one weekend, the former will have a more of a say in golf’s future.

And it’s about time the golf establishment gave “new school” players their due.

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