Brian Viner: Mrs Watson, you should still be proud

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

Almost a week has passed and still I can't shake that image of Tom Watson looking suddenly haggard, eyes brimming with tears, as the swing that had served him so well for 72 holes finally caved in during his Open Championship play-off with Stewart Cink.

Sport has yielded many poignant episodes down the years – with a lame Derek Redmond in the 1992 Olympic 400 metres semi-final being helped across the finishing line by his old dad perhaps the ultimate weepie – but I can't remember ever feeling as desolate as I did on Watson's behalf as his fingers were prised one by one from the Claret Jug that, astoundingly, he had come within an eight-foot putt of claiming for the sixth time, 26 years after his fifth.

Afterwards, during his characteristically gracious performance in the press conference at Turnberry, I happened to find myself standing alongside Watson's wife Hilary. "You ought to be very proud of him," I whispered, as if she didn't know. "I am," she whispered back, "but he's just so disappointed."

When I got home I dug out an interview I did with Watson more than two decades ago, which was published in Golf Monthly magazine in July 1988. "Those who habitually write off the great players as credible contenders should have learned their lesson two years ago when Jack Nicklaus, aged 46, won the Masters and 43-year-old Raymond Floyd won the US Open," I wrote. "Watson won't be 40 until September next year. And his appetite for our golf courses and our Open titles is as voracious as ever."

It still seems scarcely believable that fully 21 summers later, Watson should have breathed into those words more prescience than they deserved. In 1988 I really did think that Watson would win another major, and he continued carrying my each-way tenners for some years, almost repaying my faith at the Masters in 1991, when I must have been the only Brit half-hoping for Ian Woosnam to shank his approach to the 18th green. By the mid-1990s, however, it dawned on me that Watson's time had passed. Yet if I'd carried on wagering those each-way tenners every year then I'd now be in substantial profit, because at 1,500-1 even a quarter of the odds offers a handsome return.

As for where Watson's achievement at Turnberry stands in the list of age-defying sporting feats, I can think of only one to pip it. When Lester Piggott rode Royal Academy to a narrow victory in the 1990 Breeders' Cup Mile at Belmont Park on Long Island, he was 54 years old and only 12 days into a comeback after five years out of the saddle, over a year of which had been spent in jail for tax evasion. There has surely never been a day on which Father Time was more comprehensively nutmegged, but last Sunday on the Ayrshire coast, a shortish fellow gave the Long Fellow a hell of a run for his money.

... and let's not forget the Grace notes of another great innings

Age being the theme of The Last Word this week, I mustn't spare dear old W G Grace a mention. It is 95 years to the day since the old codger scored 69 not out, of a total of 155 for 6 declared, for Eltham against Grove Park in his valedictory innings. The next highest score was 30 not out, and the Eltham and District Times reported that "he got his runs all round the wicket, being especially strong on the off side. His chief hits included one five, six fours and seven twos." The match took place a week after WG's 66th birthday.

The higher our heroes soar, the lower we Brits sink

This has been a week of remarkable performances at both ends of the sporting age scale, especially for people called Tom, what with Tom Watson almost ripping up the record books and then 15-year-old Tom Daley winning diving gold in the swimming world championships in Rome.

One wonders whether, when they heard about his wonderful triumph, any of the kids who made Daley's life a misery at his school, Eggbuckland Community College in Plymouth, felt the slightest stab of shame? Three months ago, Daley revealed that he was the victim of systematic bullying. "It's not high-level bullying," he said, "just name-calling, someone chucking a bit of paper at you, tipping your pencil case out. After the Olympics it went mad ... everyone you walk past has a little dig at you."

What is so utterly dispiriting about Daley's experience is that it reveals an adolescent version of what amounts almost to a national psychosis in this country, the need to undermine those who are successful, the compulsion not to let them get too big for their boots. It is the media which all too often orchestrates this mud-flinging, so I cannot claim the moral high ground, but it would do us all good to reflect on whether a child as high-achieving as Daley – and high-achieving in sport, for heaven's sake, not in maths or music or other areas where cruel schoolchildren might more understandably label a prodigy altogether too brainy or sensitive for his own good – would be subject to a little dig by everyone he walks past in any country but this one.