Some time Saturday evening I first heard the comparison between Tom Watson’s brush with unimaginable triumph at the British Open and the Miracle on Ice. The enormity of what Watson was embarking upon is perhaps best acknowledged in that no one who participated in that rarefied (and as it turns out, premature) comparison raised any objection.
This led me to wonder: is it ok to make such a comparison — is our Miracle on Ice even in play for a rival? — and should we actually root for a sporting moment its equal or better to arrive?
There were at least 59 heart-tugging, tear-inducing, and smile-widening aspects to Watson’s performance at Turnberry, among them: the fact that he gained admission to his sport’s Hall of Fame more than 20 years ago; the fact that he had his hip replaced a mere nine months ago; the fact that he bested perhaps the greatest golfer of all time, in his prime, by 10 shots. On that latter point, realize that as of last Thursday Watson stood at no. 1,324 in the world golf rankings, and he thoroughly thumped the world’s no.1. And in this sport, the difference between no. 1 and no. 2 is Grand Canyon wide.
Yet looming above all of these fantastic aspects, for me, was Tom Watson’s performance evoking a comparison with a feat that in my lifetime I never possibly imagined knowing a rival in its quality of upset and inspiration.
From the outset, let’s acknowledge this: if we are ever to admit a real serious sporting moment rival to the Miracle on Ice, the aspirant certainly is going to have to possess the non-negotiable credentials of bona fide American sports legend. The Miracle on Ice is, after all, a uniquely American tale. This exceptionally distinguishing quality Tom Watson possessed long before this past week at Turnberry. We simply are not going to surrender the Miracle’s sacred status to some upstart feat by some journeyman jock. The Miracle is miraculous by virtue of the caliber of opponent, the geo-political climate of the time, and the stakes of the competition: the Olympics games.
The British Open, while not the Olympics, is not only one of golf’s four majors but long has been considered the sport’s annual world championship, boasting the most international field. In other words, Watson wasn’t bewildering us at the John Deere Classic, but standing and swinging grandly on his sport’s sacred ground.
Additionally, Watson’s Open magic captivated a global audience, enveloping sports and non-sports fans alike, understandably, and with each passing day and Watson’s endurance at the very top of the leaderboard the drama not only intensified to palm-perspiring and heart-racing degrees, but every hole conquered with Watson as leader formed an unprecedented and powerful rebuke to — and genuine liberation from — our enslavement to the withering effects of Father Time.
This wasn’t Gordie Howe skating briefly and ceremoniously on some bush league team’s third line; this was sport at its most mythological, transporting us to a realm unimagined before in the human condition.
Really: Watson isn’t merely a member of golf’s Senior Tour but six weeks shy of what was once known as Super Senior status — the acknowledgment that there needs to be a separate tier of competition for sexagenarians, whose bones creek and ache appreciably more than at 50.
Speaking of extraordinary sexagenarians, the point of no return emotionally and in the event’s significance for me arrived with acknowledgment from Jack Nicklaus — Watson’s fiercest competitor from their glory years — who affirmed from his home in Florida that he was glued to the proceedings at Turnberry, his eyes filled with tears.
You had also the moving testimony of another Watson foe, Hall of Famer Seve Ballesteros, today battling a brain tumor. He was watching Watson from his home in Spain and professed to be so inspired that he pledged to play in the 2010 British Open at the home of golf, St. Andrews.
Sports captivates us most when we are witness to it expand humanity’s perceived physical limits. Tom Watson most assuredly expanded our notion of athletic excellence carried off as grandfather golfer. In this respect it was very important that Tiger Woods was in the Turnberry field, wholly healthy, and just a few weeks removed from notable victory here at Congressional.
Had Watson prevailed much of his nation, including a healthy bit of its
golf- and sports-indifferent populace, would have spent this week reveling in the
majesty and magic of Watson’s feat but also I think comparing it with
the greatest triumphs in the history of sports, including the Miracle
on Ice. We’ve been denied that, obviously. But the power and transcendance of Watson’s moment in the Scottish sun I don’t think can be denied — a not atypical reader reaction to Watson’s defeat found in online comments went like this: “This may be the most heartbreaking sporting event I’ve ever witnessed.”
Watson the legend and sportsman may also have enjoyed an expedited scrutiny to a lodging alongside the Miracle on Ice for this basic reason: He hails from our Heartland, and he’s spent the entirety of his professional sports career being the kind of public figure fathers would have their sons emulate. Now we who followed Huck from the Heartland’s life-altering heroics at Turnberry will forever have him in our hearts.
Perhaps the best part of the Tom Watson Story circa 2009 was that those of us who hero-worshipped him in the 1970s and ’80s and who went to bed Saturday night genuinely restless at the thought of him pulling off perhaps the greatest triumph in the history of sports really were rewarded and inspired by his Sunday performance. On that 72nd tee Sunday, with millions around the world transfixed in marvel, a sporting mortal would have buckled. Instead Watson blasted a perfect tee shot and followed it with a striped approach home, one that tracked perfectly with its intended target.
It’s wrong I think to remember the 2009 British Open for the bad bounce that upended Tom Watson’s stake to athletic immortality. Instead I think we should remember of it Tom Watson’s brilliance, and this is precisely what the victor, Stewart Cink, did: “The same Tom Watson that won this tournament in, what was it, ’77, the same guy showed up here this week.”
It was miraculous, and may there be more.