Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Nearly the Greatest Achievement of All!

I love watching the British Open Golf Championship each year. Though the Americans especially may quibble with the contention that this is still the premier golfing event, I would beg to differ.

What makes this event so extraordinary - apart from its historical tradition - is its sheer unpredictability. It is the only major Championship to be played on links courses in weather conditions in Britain that can dramatically change from day to day (and even hour to hour). This therefore sets a great test in the ability of the golfers to adapt to these varying conditions which makes for great excitement.

Unfortunately so much of this has now gone out of golf with a superbly tuned mechanical - and sometimes even robotic - approach usually paying the greatest dividends on carefully manicured courses around the world.

It is not surprising therefore that the British Open has a habit of regularly throwing up unexpected contenders. Who would have picked the likes of Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton to be winners or as with last year Louis Oosthuizen to coast throw the tournament and win by 7 shots! And who can even remember the likes of Brian Watt who lost in a play-off in 1998? Or for that matter who would have picked Darren Clarke to win this year's event?

Though I would not claim that I expected Darren to win, it certainly crossed my mind that he could indeed prove a surprise contender.

As is well known Ireland - and especially Northern Ireland - has enjoyed enormous success in recent majors. Padraig Harrington started it in 2007 by breaking a hoodoo of 60 years to win the British Open, and then repeated the win again in 2008 as well as adding the PGA later in the year to the list. Then Graeme McDowell became the first European player in 40 years to win the US Open in 2010, only for Rory McIlroy to lift the trophy again earlier this year.

So I reckoned that Darren Clarke - who always had the necessary ability though underachieving in Majors - could be spurred on by these successes of his close compatriots to put in a creditable challenge. And almost magically this expectation was surpassed with yet another Major added to the list. So in just over 13 months we have had 3 Major winners from Northern Ireland with 6 of the last 17 Majors won by Irish golfers. Extraordinary!

However strangely as I was watching Tom Watson performing so superbly in the worst of the elements on Saturday I felt a great sense of sadness for his lost opportunity two years earlier when he was on the verge of what would have qualified for perhaps the greatest single achievement ever in golf (and perhaps even in all sport).

The oldest winner of a Major is Julius Boros who won the PGA in 1968 at the age of 48 years and 4 months. Jack Nicklaus is the oldest winner of the Masters at 46 years and 2 months and Hale Irwin the oldest winner of the US Open at 45 years and 15 days.

The oldest winner in the modern era of the British Open is Roberto Vicenzo at 44 years and 3 months (Old Tom Morris was 46 years and 3 months when he won in 1867!)

And yet at Turnberry in 2009 Tom Watson who was just 2 months shy of his 60th birthday was within 1 hole of winning the British Open.
Unfortunately however it proved just one hole too many. Having defied the age barrier in masterful fashion for 71 holes, and needing just par for an outright win, it was as if Tom remembered his age on the last hole and played it in a tentative manner. Even before he lined up to put, I sensed it was all over. He missed; the play-off with Stewart Cink was then just a formality!

If Tom had gone on to win, the ramifications I believe would have been truly enormous, stimulating new belief in the unlimited potential of older people throughout all walks of life. For such a win would have broken the previous age limit for a Major incredibly by 11.5 years at a time when golf has never been so competitive!

For me, even as a near miss, it still ranks as perhaps the greatest single achievement in golf. However in a sense it is indeed true that only the winners are really celebrated. Therefore in the end so many will ultimately recall Tom Watson's magnificent exploits at Turnberry, as an unfortunate failure!