October 29, 2009

After The Fall

Tom Watson's 2009 season will forever be defined by his close call at the British Open, but he still has a chance to add an important chapter this week

Watson has received plenty of support since he nearly won at Turnberry.

Watson has received plenty of support since he nearly won at Turnberry.

SONOMA, Ca. -- Tom Watson's near victory -- or heartbreaking loss -- in the British Open continues to resonate as golf's story of the year. Three months later, at the end of a Champions Tour season, that's what all the players are still talking about. "I think if he had won it might have been arguably one of the best sporting achievements of all time," said Fred Funk when asked to rank it at this week's Charles Schwab Cup. Had Watson been able to pull it off, at age 59, coming off total hip replacement, it would have ranked in Funk's estimation with the "Miracle on Ice".

There was no Miracle at Turnberry, as we know, but this might have been one of those cases were more was gained by losing than winning -- based on the grace and honesty with which Watson handled the defeat. Earlier this week at Sonoma GC, Watson talked about receiving so many e-mails it blew out his Microsoft Outlook Express, how he still has a box of mail still unanswered, and, typical of Watson, he pledged to return every last piece of electronic and hand-written notes -- as much as a part of him hates being lauded for his sportsmanship. He would much rather would be corresponding as Champion Golfer of the Year, with the Claret Jug at his home in Kansas City. "It hurt," Watson said in the locker room at Thursday afternoon.

But Watson got back up on the horse just as he did two weeks ago -- artificial hip and all. It seems that Watson is feeling so spry one year after surgery, he threw his leg up on one of his wife's cutting horses and took a ride. He also took a fall, landing directly on the hip that has a new socket. "He went one way and I went the other and it was, 'See ya,' '' Watson said, laughing it off.

Last October, Watson went to Dr. Joel Matta at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, Ca. He describes the cause ("No, it wasn't aseptic necrosis, it was severe arthritis."), and also the procedure ("They did both the acetabulum and the femur component."), in detail. He also describes that moment of silence, after the horse threw him two weeks ago, before waving off Hillary. "I didn't feel a thing," Watson said. "Of course I landed in this much sand."

Weathered hands spread just inches apart, Watson went on to describe the buzz of getting up on a horse and letting go of the reigns with great enthusiasm, as he did in the media center a day earlier. He turned 60 in September, but still has the youthful spirit and bright eyes of a young man.

Part of that is simply being pain-free again.

"One thing I thought was kind of not highlighted at all was the fact that he was coming off a hip -- less than a year from having a new hip," said Funk, who is exploring the possibility of total knee replacement. "I don't remember the broadcasters saying anything, or writing anything about it really. It was just kind of a forgotten thing. I'm sure it wasn't forgotten for him. That's a pretty amazing recovery. That's the great thing about technology and hip replacements and his fortitude to come back the way he did."

Not that Watson needed to be made relevant again, but what Turnberry did was serve as a reminder of his integrity and class. "The enormity of the response was unforeseen," he said. The result is a full plate of business activity, with a set of instruction DVDs nearing completion; a trip to Iraq next month as part of a group called "Troops First"; a "Golf First" project in Kansas City that will be finished next summer; potential course design contracts in China; and talks of a book deal heating up. "The phone is ringing," he said. "Yeah, a lot of different people."

His golf game is in a good place right now, as reflected in an opening-round 69 in the Schwab Cup. He made an adjustment on the putting green Wednesday morning that gave him more consistency. Three strokes off the lead with 54 holes remaining, at an event (and venue) where he has won three times, Watson remains a threat to close out his year with a victory.

Not that a win in the Schwab Cup tournament proper could wipe out the final-hole bogey at Turnberry, or the playoff loss to Stewart Cink, but it would hard to find a more fitting way for the season to end.

"It's almost there," Watson said. "I shouldn't really say that. I should just wait for it to happen. I shouldn't say it's almost there. That's the kiss of death."

Spoken by a man who has felt that kiss.