Watson takes swing at ageism

59-year-old with an artificial hip demonstrates that age is no barrier to success – nearly

A 59-year-old man from Kansas with a replacement left hip yesterday dealt a blow to ageism that will resound for decades to come.

By almost winning golf's most prestigious prize, the Open Championship, just six weeks or so short of his 60th birthday, Tom Watson rocked not just the world of golf, and not just the world of sport. As a counterblast to prevailing notions about age, there is scarcely anything to compare. Arlene Phillips, the 66-year-old choreographer just released as a judge of Strictly Come Dancing by the BBC – which has shamelessly replaced her with the much younger Alesha Dixon – should come up with a new high-kicking dance in his honour.

Watson had five times won the Claret Jug awarded to the winner of the Open, more than anyone else alive, but not since 1983. Beyond the age of 50, professional golfers get to play on their own separate circuit, the Champions Tour, making only occasional and mostly ceremonial appearances in the game's four major championships. They are not meant to have 8ft putts to win the Open, as Watson did on the 18th hole at Turnberry, on the west coast of Scotland, yesterday.

Regrettably he missed, forcing him into a play-off with his compatriot Stewart Cink. And in the play-off a weary Watson, at long last bowing to the ravages of age, his eyes brimming with tears, effectively fell apart. There was to be no fairytale ending, yet the beginning and middle of the story amounted to nothing if not a fairytale.

Watson had started the four-day event with a brilliant five-under par round of 65, propelling minds back to 1977, when he defeated the great Jack Nicklaus with a last-round 65 in what became known as "the Duel in the Sun". Fully 32 summers later, on a blustery Ayrshire day, he almost emerged victorious from the Duel in the Wind.

His achievement can be given further context by the departure after two days of the world's finest golfer, Tiger Woods, who failed to make the cut. Woods, a whippersnapping 33 years old, had started the event as a 5-2 favourite, with nobody else in the field rated better than a 20-1 chance. Yet it was a different TW leading the competition almost from first to last, confounding not just the bookmakers but everyone with even the slightest knowledge of sport. There will be those who scoff that Watson's performance merely proves that golf is an old man's game. They shouldn't. They should exult in the fact that experience can still triumph over youth, a replacement hip over original hips, and in sport's infinite capacity to inspire.

Previous winners of the Open are given exemptions until they are 60, so next year's competition at St Andrews will be Watson's last, and the foundations of the "auld grey toun" in Fife will surely be rocked by the extravagant cheers given him as he makes his way down the last fairway for the final time. He is also due cheers by anyone who has experienced any form of ageism. Come on, Arlene.