James Lawton: Come wind, rain or shine Watson's words and deeds hit a sporting truth in one
Watson has rarely been in better philosophical form when he backed, with brilliant craft, his declaration that he will never play the game ceremonially
Tuesday 19 July 2011
In all the exhilaration of the 140th Open, all those moments of uplift provided by the ageing Darren Clarke playing the golf of his life and defying the belief that even a game so wildly psychological can be slotted easily into compartments of occupational efficiency, the prize here must go out to a brief and joyous statement by 61-year-old Tom Watson.
The man from Kansas City, who has eight major titles to his name and two years ago came so unforgettably close to adding a ninth, is at a point in his life when it is has never been more natural to follow the advice of his great predecessor Walter Hagen, who insisted that every man lucky enough to be a professional sportsman must sooner or later stop to smell the flowers.
However old you are, however reserved you might be about the fact that Watson, who once rejected an invitation to the Bill Clinton White House on grounds of political theory, stands roughly to the right of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun, the result is rarely less than intoxicating.
He has certainly rarely been in better philosophical form than over the last few days when he supported with brilliant craft his declaration that, unlike so many great golfers, he will never play the game ceremonially, never milk the affection of old admirers.
His happiness at holing in one, while at the same time acknowledging that the feat was just the other face of an imposter who might have sent the ball dangerously beyond the pin, was easy and affecting. So too was his quiet encouragement of the latest potential prodigy to pass his way, Welwyn Garden City's young designer-clad Tom Lewis.
Watson also enthralled his last audience at Royal St George's with an emotional account of his pre-tournament visit to the landingbattlegrounds of Normandy.
Yet, for some, Watson's most moving legacy of the wind-blown, rain-soaked tournament in which he finished just one shot behind reigning US Masters champion Charl Schwartzel– and one in front of US title-holder Rory McIlroy – was a short account of his second most memorable moment.
It didn't create a fraction of the uproar that came with his thrilling 15th career ace. It wasn't one of the long, lingering ovations which came each day when he walked down to the 18th green after rounds of superb application. It was a single shot, a "darned near-perfect six-iron". Watson said: "I hit just an absolutely crisp six-iron to 14 today from 135 yards straight into the teeth of the wind to about 30 feet and made the putt. That was one of the good irons I hit today. I hit the ball on the club-face today better than I had all week. Will I be back next year? Yes, if everything is OK with me, then I'll be back. I sure will." Is there really such a thing as a life-affirming six-iron? Watson suggested strongly there was and as he did you could only regret the absence of the 22-year-old who came into this tournament billed as the next most sensational young golfer since Tiger Woods burst upon our consciousness 14 years ago.
When countryman Padraig Harrington claimed in the wake of McIlroy's extraordinary triumph in the US Open that one day he could outstrip Jack Nicklaus's record mark of 18 major titles, the younger man engagingly shook his head and said: "Oh, Paddy, Paddy, Paddy..." When McIlroy spoke on Sunday of his distaste for golf tournaments decided by the weather, there was, of course, an overwhelming urge to say: "Rory, Rory, Rory..."
You could have heard a club-head cover drop when McIlroy responded to the statement that if he was ever going to contend for the Old Claret Jug Watson had claimed five times he would have to deal with the weather that had engulfed the shoreline of the English Channel. McIlroy said: "It's either that or just wait for a year when the weather is nice. No, I mean my game is suited for basically every golf course and most conditions, but I just don't enjoy playing the conditions we have had here. That's the bottom line. I'd rather play when it's 80 degrees and sunny and not much wind."
When McIlroy said that, it was impossible not to go back to a wild day in Dublin, Ohio, in 1979, when Watson was around the peak of his powers, when he treated climatic turbulence not as an imposition but the sweetest of challenges. On that day, when the wind battered the trees and tore at the bushes and the buildings of the course built and ruled by Jack Nicklaus, the proprietor had walked in proudly after shooting an even round. The Golden Bear declared: "Yes, I'm very proud of that round, I do not expect to see any red numbers on the leader board today."
Almost at that precise moment they put some red numbers on the board. They put up Tom Watson's 69 and Nicklaus shook his head and said: "My, my, that Tommy Watson." My, my, Tommy Watson... It was something to murmur again when he waved farewell to the old, unforgiving course for maybe the last time. He said that he would follow closely the careers of young men like Tommy Lewis, Rory and Ryo Ishikawa. "These young people," he said, "are just what I was. I came on the tour at the age of 22. I wasn't 18 or 17 or 19 like Seve, but it's close enough.
"At some point we're all mere babes, with passion and dreams that maybe someday we can be a Jack Nicklaus, and that's what I had."
Few sportsmen ever made more of their gift, ever came through the best and the worst of times, the titles and the yips and the dislocation of private life and the liking for the consolations of the whiskey river celebrated by Willie Nelson, so whole and so generous.
A life-affirming six-iron, did we say? You've got to believe it, partner.
Tarnished Tour still shines as a test of human endurance
There is so much that is worn-out and cynical and discredited in the Tour de France that you wonder how long it will be able to carry on picking itself up, tending its wounds and straightening its spokes.
But then you keep hearing the strangely intense, exultant voice of Mark Cavendish celebrating another stage victory, speaking of his awe for the slavish support he gets from his battling team-mates and his resolve to fight his way to another triumph along the Champs-Élysées.
You remember, too, the sentiment of the great Jacques Anquetil, who said that it surprised him that so many people were aghast to hear that "the boys", from time to time, were found to be in receipt of chemical assistance. It was more surprising, he added, that it was imagined that they might conquer the inhuman courses set for them, almost invariably in the spirit of commercial exploitation, without any temptation to cheat.
What remains true, you have to believe, is a fact that will never be challenged in any dope-testing station. It is that, beyond the right and the wrong, and the claims of the guilty and the innocent, an extraordinary courage and physical resilience will always be required of anyone who tackles the Tour. It is the race that makes strong observers cry, out of both despair and admiration.
Arsenal's decline is a warning for English football
Inevitably, there is another mingling of mockery and diehard respect for Arsène Wenger's latest declaration that his Arsenal retain the means to conquer English football on his terms. Unfortunately, the evidence accumulates that in the most vital of areas, the hearts and minds of such as Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, the argument is essentially lost.
It may be Arsenal's tragedy but it is also a heavy blow for all those who are less than sanguine about the future of the Premier League. Last season was particularly depressing, not least because of the extent of Arsenal's decline as a seriously competitive unit. One thing, at least, is beyond dispute. It is still true that what is good for Arsenal remains one of the best hopes for English football.
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