The years have been good to Sandy Tatum, all 89 of them, enough of them to safely conclude that he had seen it all, as even he reckoned he had until his dear old friend, the man with whom he's on a last name basis, the man he calls Watson, proved him wrong in the British Open at Turnberry.
"This totally and completely will stand alone," Tatum said on Tuesday, not having to look hard to find a place in which to store this memory among all that he had collected from golf through the years. "Nothing had the impact on me like this one did."
Tatum, a former USGA president, became acquainted with Tom Watson when the latter was still at Stanford, but the ensuing bond they formed suggests they've been friends forever. Watson credits Tatum with instilling in him his love for links golf, by suggesting a pre-British Open golf excursion in the British Isles in 1981.
"We played Ballybunion, Troon, Prestwick, Dornoch," Tatum said. "When we got to Dornoch, it was blowing and raining. We teed off about 3. We're coming up 18 about 6:30 and Tom says, 'let's go out again.' So we did, and we're out there, the two of us, in the rain, walking along the third fairway, Watson walking ahead of me, when he called to me. 'What do you want to say, Watson?' I asked. He said, 'This is the most fun I've had playing golf in my whole life.'"
The memory stands, more than quarter of a century later, as the context for the emotions into which Watson's performance at Turnberry tapped for Tatum. He was traveling that week and Sunday's final round found him in an Oregon bar, riveted by what he was witnessing on its television.
"There were some talk that this may be the most impressive performance in golf, maybe in sports, ever," he said. "That didn't take it too far out of context for me.
"I still think what he did was out of this world. I was delighted to see the revival of the import of what happened in 1977 (the Duel in the Sun) between him and the greatest player in the game. I've been bothered for quite awhile that Tom sort of disappeared as people talked about the history of the game. Happily, he brought it back out, and I believe it will be a permanent addition to his reputation."
On the eve of the tournament, Tatum was with the overwhelming majority, dismissing Watson's declared confidence in his ability to contend. "I thought, 'Nice going Tom, you're going in with the right attitude and exactly the attitude you need.' But it was so far out of reality."
Then play began and the reality was that Watson was proving himself prescient. "He said he had a plan," Tatum said. "My sense was that plan caused him to enfold himself in a mental kind of safe deposit box, so that the only thing he was focused on out there was the shot he had to play. He understood he could play it, he understood the golf course like no one else. He had himself in that frame of mind."
Then came the 72nd hole, when his second shot ran through the green, and he needed to save par to win. "My perception was that finally, unfortunately, the monumental factor of what he was about to accomplish penetrated that isolation he was in, that now he's thinking that he's got to get the ball down in two to win the Open."
Tatum did not stay to watch the playoff. "It was going to be too painful," he said.
In the midst of his improbable run at the Claret Jug, Watson was asked how he thought Tatum was handling it. "I think Sandy will have a heart attack," Watson replied.
Tatum sent Watson an email on Tuesday. He wrote in part: "While I cannot begin to express how what I saw affected me, a heart attack would have been much easier to handle...Thanks for giving me four days, absent two plays with the putter, on Cloud Nine."
-- John Strege