Put away the rockin’ chairs: Even in defeat, Watson shows that aging athletes can still thrive

By Paul Newberry, AP
Monday, July 20, 2009

watsonTURNBERRY, Scotland — Maybe when the disappointment wears off — for both Tom Watson and the millions of fans cheering him on — everyone will take a larger message from his amazing performance along the Scottish coast.

Age, indeed, is just a number.

Let’s not put these ol’ geezers out to pasture just yet.

From George Foreman to Dara Torres, from Lance Armstrong to Mark Martin — and now, Watson — these geriatric athletes pop out of their rockin’ chairs from time to time, reminding us that youth may win out most times, but it’s not always served.

“As athletes, we’re not putting an age limit on our dreams,” Torres said from a hotel in Italy, where the 42-year-old swimmer is preparing to compete at the world championships. “I don’t think it matters what age you are.”

Watson proved that during four magical days at Turnberry, even if the ending was painful to watch. Less than a year removed from hip replacement surgery and three years away from qualifying for Social Security, he nearly won the British Open at 59.


“He’s striking the ball so well, just so straight,” said Mathew Goggin, 24 years younger and Watson’s playing partner on Sunday. “He can contend on these (links) golf courses forever the way he strikes the ball.”

Watson shot a 5-under 65 in the opening round. He led after the next two days, the oldest golfer ever to set the pace at a major championship. And at the 72nd hole Sunday evening, with the sun dipping toward the Firth of Clyde, he stood over an 8-foot putt with a chance to become the oldest major champion.


Everyone held their breath.

“It reminds me of what it used to be like when you played the big Tour, played the kids’ Tour, and were in contention all the time,” said Watson, now a regular on the senior circuit but eligible for the British Open since he’s a five-time winner. “Almost. The dream almost came true.”

The potential winning putt never had a chance, curling to a stop nearly a foot shy of the cup. Watson tapped that in for a tie with Stewart Cink — and suddenly looked his age, sort of like an over-the-hill Muhammad Ali getting battered when his prime had passed.

Arriving at the No. 5 tee box for the start of the playoff, Watson was overheard mentioning to an official that it was getting cold. Then he played as if his tired ol’ bones had given it all they had. A bogey at the first extra hole. A double bogey at the third. One last bogey to finish up, then watch Cink take hold of the claret jug that should have been Watson’s.

“The old fogey almost did it,” Watson said, flashing that pierced-lip smile of his. “It was fun out there. It was fun to be in the mix of it again and having the kids who are my kids’ age just look at you and say, ‘What are you doing out here?’ and saying, ‘All right, nice going. You can still play.”

But showing he still had it didn’t ease Watson’s anguish. During the awards ceremony, after Cink had collected the claret jug and moved over to stand beside the runner-up, Watson looked wistfully at the winner’s prize, as if he knew he’ll likely never get this close to it again.

“I’ll take some good things from it,” Watson said, “but it’s still a disappointment to do what I did and lose the golf tournament.”

Everyone felt his pain, from older folks who looked at him as their role model to youngsters who know they’ll be in his shoes one day.

“How about Tom Watson,” the 37-year-old Armstrong wrote on Twitter from the Tour de France, where he’s trying to pull off a similarly themed story. “Amazing.”

Amazing, indeed.

“You find yourself cheering for a person like that,” said Torres, who kept up with the Open via the Internet in between her own preparations. “It’s sort of what happened to me. People wanted to see me win because they want to relate to that. I’m sure everyone out there’s who a little bit older and likes to play golf can relate to Tom Watson. Even those who don’t play, this is someone who showed that it doesn’t matter how old you are if you follow your dreams.

“That’s what people want to see. They want to see it happen so they’ll feel like it could happen to them.”

As with Watson, some of the most captivating achievements by supposedly over-the-hill athletes were also near-misses.

At age 39, still-fiery and wildly popular Jimmy Connors made a stirring run to the semifinals at the 1991 U.S. Open — eight years after winning the last of his eight Grand Slam titles. Torres settled for three silver medals at last year’s Beijing Olympics, losing out on gold in her lone individual event by a mere hundredth of a second. A 50-year-old French cyclist just missed a medal at the same Games.

Asked how much she thinks about her oh-so-close loss, Torres replied, “Every day.”

Other aging athletes didn’t have to settle for second. In 1986, Jack Nicklaus captured the last of his record 18 major golf titles at 46, rallying on the back nine at Augusta National to win the Masters. That same year, 54-year-old Bill Shoemaker won his fourth Kentucky Derby, riding longshot Ferdinand to a last-to-first dash to become the oldest jockey to take the Run for the Roses.

Nolan Ryan threw the sixth no-hitter of his career at 43 — then threw another the following year. Foreman came out of retirement to become the oldest heavyweight champion when he knocked out Michael Moorer at age 45. Martina Navratilova was a month shy of her 50th birthday when she won the mixed doubles championship at the 2006 U.S. Open.

The key, Torres said, is learning to use your head just as much as your body. Watson, for instance, doesn’t work out all that much but he always makes sure to stretch vigorously before a round.

“If I have a choice between hitting a bucket of balls and stretching,” he said, “I’ll stretch.”

Added Torres, “When you’re younger, you feel invincible. Your feel like you can do anything. It doesn’t matter, you’ll be able to bounce back or work through it. When you get a little bit older, you have to listen to your body, give yourself more rest. You have to realize that you don’t have to be practicing as much as the other players. Just do what’s best for you and your body.”

Just last weekend, 50-year-old Mark Martin won his fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the year, more than any other driver.

“That adrenaline is something, there’s nothing like it,” Martin said. “When I’m pumped up driving fast race cars, I certainly don’t feel 50.”

There’s no age limit in racing. Also Sunday, 81-year-old Hershel McGriff became the oldest driver to take part in a national NASCAR series race by qualifying for an event in Portland, Ore.

“I haven’t had anyone tell me that I’m crazy,” he cracked.

Maybe the Royal & Ancient, should reconsider its entry requirements, which allow past champions to play only until they’re 60. That rule seems a little out of place, now doesn’t it, especially on the links courses used for the Open, which tend to favor experience over being able to hit the ball a mile.

“When all is said and done,” said Watson, his eyes tearing up and unlikely to dry anytime soon, “one of the things I hope will come out of my life is that my peers will say, ‘You know, that Watson, he was a hell of a golfer.’”

Still is.

Age, after all, is just a number.

AP Sports Writer Rachel Cohen in New York contributed to this report.

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