Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On the greatest sporting achievement that almost was…..


(This is basically an edited version of an email response to the good Scrib50 regarding Tom Watson’s astonishing run and disappointing finish at the 2009 British Open. I’m posting it because it contains some thoughts on caddying, as well as my shared perspective with Scrib50 on how incredible a sporting feat this actually was and where it would have ranked if Watson had managed to win. Thanks Scrib50, for firing up this line of thought and for the encouragement in turning it into a blog post)

I was just absolutely crushed, like most people, when Watson’s putt to win the Open championship didn’t even come close. Watson didn't just have it on Sunday, he had it in spades! He was in control on the back 9. A lot of people had trouble on 15 and virtually everyone melted on 16---Watson cruised thru there. Then he birdied 17 like he should have. Westwood bogeyed 3 of the last 4. He got incredibly lucky after his drive on 17---though he did get robbed on his eagle putt. Even Cink didn't birdie 17 like he should have---that was a long par 4 for these guys and he absolutely should have birdied it or better. But to his credit, Cink did birdie 18---though he got a very favorable bounce that Westwood or Watson didn't get.

Still, after all that, Watson had an 8-footer to win---I actually stood up from my chair with anticipation. It was very disappointing how he never gave it a chance. Short putts have been Watson’s problem for years, and it was painful to watch how the 8-foot putt barely made it past six feet.

His caddie/friend should have talked to him before lining up the putt---I know, he probably thought "Jeez he's won 8 majors, let me leave him alone" but seeing how Watson was shaky all day with the putter he should have talked to him. In his place I would have absolutely told Watson "Let it flow Tom. It’s all gravy anyway man. This improbable ride has come this far---you've gotta believe it is meant to be. Pick a spot and let the thing roll. Let's cash this one in". That's all it takes to release pressure. Instead, the caddie looked tense and funereal and just tried to avoid Tom as much as possible at a time when you could feel the tension all freaking around. The collective breaths of like 20000 people around the grandstands were being held---the short putt has been Tom's Achilles Heel for decades now, and you could feel everyone---there and around the world--- get all puckered up, if you know what I mean. I mean you could reach out and touch the stress thru the TV---you think Tom couldn't feel how anxious everyone was?!!

You HAVE to break that tension before you let your guy putt. I mean, it is not some super-caddie-juju-secret or anything, just freaking common sense. You have to loosen him up, PUT ONE REALLY GOOD THOUGHT IN HIS HEAD and then give him a moment to focus on the spot/line and then go.

That bad putt was purely the result of very tight hands and forearms---I should know as I gag like that all the time. And even I know, over a crucial putt, to tell myself, "Dude, you get tight, nothing good will happen. You stay loose and let it ride, and chances are that you make it; even if you don’t make it at least you won't regret it like you would if you were all wound up and gagged". But the bigger the moment and the more frustrated/tired/wired/excited/anything but thinking clearly and positively/ that I am, the more apt I am to forget to remind myself to relax. That's why pros have caddies---and it is part of the caddie's job (even if it is a friend or an amateur caddie) to jockey the player home. On that incredibly huge stage, with that much emotion going thru him and the pressure of the world on his shoulders, even a seasoned pro needs a gentle nudge in the positive direction. All good caddies know and do that. Tom's caddie should really have given him a strong positive thought, and maybe even gotten him to genuinely chuckle or something, before Tom started lining up the putt.

It has been said, even by the great ones, that Tiger "willed in" putts. Sure seemed like it to me. And I am convinced it is because he saw the picture of the putt like his dad taught him, and then he convinced himself that if he hit it on that line it would definitely go in. That confidence frees up your body, and all the info your mind has processed when lining up the putt gets mobilized into action even somewhat subconsciously---and whaddaya know, you make the damn putt!

If Watson had sunk that putt I think it would have been, hands down, the greatest sporting story in modern history. People have made comparisons to the Miracle on Ice team, Buster Douglas’ upset of Tyson etc. But they are not even close, due to the crucial differences. Firstly, all the others were somewhat fairly matched contests. The USA sent its hockey team--it was a national team, however much of an underdog it was. Buster was an underdog but he was an active fighter in the same age and weight class and had some resume. Anyway, you get the idea. Watson was not remotely on the same plane as much of the field. He doesn't play on the regular Tour. He doesn't even really contend all the time on the Champions Tour. He would not have come close to qualifying by normal criteria for the Open---the only reason he played was that he was a past champ and was eligible to play till he was 60. There was nothing in his game, even remotely recently, that suggested he could even make the cut, let alone contend for the title.

But even more importantly, most of the other "greatest sports stories" (even where talent wasn't evenly matched) were single day events---one good day and you could make history. Watson had to beat all comers for four full days. If one golfer had a meltdown, there were still 70 or so more over the weekend to fend off. What it came down to was that Watson just couldn't afford even one really bad hole, on a course that would destroy you if you have a momentary lapse of concentration---Ask Ross Fisher, who led the field by 2 strokes after 4 holes on Sunday and then made an 8 on a par 4 because of one bad tee-shot.

And Watson pulled it off. All the experts kept commenting on how well he knew the course (having won there in 1977), knew to play links golf (having won 5 Open Championships) etc, but none really commented sufficiently on how difficult it is to execute nearly flawlessly for 4 days, especially at the age of 59, playing with an artificial hip! It is really great to know where you need to hit the ball, but then you have to go out and do it really well for 4 full rounds. Anyone who has ever walked 18 holes of golf, on a championship-level course, knows how much it takes out of a player. Anyone who has walked 18 holes of golf for three days straight, then tried to play the fourth day, knows how difficult it is to swing the club decently let alone to keep form and balance all the time. If your club face is off by 5 degrees on impact, a 150-yard shot will be errant by about 10-15 yards---these guys can't afford to miss by 10 feet on many of these approach shots. Imagine it, man. 3 or 4 lousy degrees open or shut, and you are in a bunker or off the green or something like that. This is not talked about enough by the 'experts' --- most people have trouble closing out tournaments on Sunday because of fatigue. Even subtle fatigue matters. Even a supremely fit athlete who tires slightly during the fourth round will have some trouble. Just because Tiger at his weakest is stronger than me at my strongest doesn't mean that if Tiger is immune to fatigue-related errors. If he is off his optimum by 3% then his club could also be off by 3% on a crucial shot and could be scrambling to save par instead of licking his chops at a birdie. And that's just the physical stuff---the mental toll over 4 rounds is just as high, if not higher. Fatigue happens all the time to golfers on Sunday. The great ones know how to manage it, and Watson did it so freaking well---till that last putt. Obviously and remarkably, a lot of it was pure adrenaline too, as you could see that he was just completely gassed in the playoff after missing the putt on the 72nd hole.

The only story that comes close is Francis Ouimet’s stunning win at the US Open in 1913---he was a 20-yr old amateur who beat a couple of legends. But even there, Ouimet was clearly a talented enough amateur to qualify for the tournament. He went on to win the US Amateur title the next year and went on to have a distinguished golf career. His win at the 1913 US Open, in retrospect, was an announcement of a talented golfer’s arrival—remarkable, but it happens every now and then. Tiger Woods’ three consecutive US Amateur titles, his record win at his first professional Masters---I think that these were just as remarkable and stunning as Ouimet’s win.

But Watson’s performance last week was just unparalleled in major sport in recent history. I think that if he had won, it would clearly have been the greatest sports achievement of modern times.

What a bummer, the way it turned out. Nevertheless, I think it will prove to be one of the most inspiring events to many people, especially senior citizens. I do not think anyone seriously thought that a 59-yr old man could contend, and indeed beat, a whole field of young thoroughbreds for virtually an entire tournament. I think it will have opened up a new avenue of hope and rejuvenation for a lot of older people struggling to come to grips with their failing faculties. It reinforces, in an exhilaratingly tangible way, the hope that incredible things can happen if one can stay fit. Anyway, that's how, I've decided, I will always think of the 2009 Open Championship.


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scribbler50 said...

Well, you already know how I feel about this post but I'll say it anyway, Stache. "Brilliant"

This is as thorough and insightful a column as any commentary I've read in the mainstream media. In fact more so. You've covered it, man, like a tarp on a rainy infield. And I (just for the hell of it) tried to come up with it's equivalent in modern sports and really couldn't. Especially because of your point that he had to do it four times... beat this young field of guys for four straight days. Amazing, even in defeat. Because what he DID do is tie the best of the field at the end of four days. And if his caddy had done what you said.......

Again, great post, pal. And as enjoyable as it was to read I'll bet it was even more enjoyable for you to get that off your fucking chest!!! Right?

Anonymoustache said...

Thanks dude, for the comments and the inspiration for the post.
And you're right---after the blue funk of Sunday's disappointment, it feels great to get that off my chest!