Elementary, My Dear: Did Golf Have the Perfect Finish Sunday?

He plays golf. Your grandfather. Your grandpappy. Golf. A golf man. Is my tone communicating the contempt? Billiards on a big table, Jim. A bodiless game of spasmodic flailing and flying sod. A quote unquote sport.

—Infinite Jest

The criticisms of golf are many: It is boring, it is prejudiced, it is unfashionable. Most perniciously, it is not a sport.

I am not here to defend golf as sport; I’m more than willing to relinquish that fight, so long as you do the same with regard to bowling, track, swimming, cross country, and soccer, among others.

But golf’s always tenuous hold on sporthood survived one of its strongest challenges yet Sunday, when a seven-foot putt off the flatstick of 59-year-old Tom Watson sputtered off line and fell short of its target on Turnberry’s 72nd hole. In the process, the game* of golf had its cake and ate it, too: On a weekend absent of Tiger Woods—for the second consecutive year at the Open—Watson’s astonishing contention was the only major storyline—one that attracted far more viewers than a leaderboard of Lee Westwood, Mathew Goggin, and Stewart Cink ever could. At the same time, the fact that the 59-year-old Watson didn’t win restored, for the moment, golf’s lingering claim to sporthood.

*Note the noun.


There’s no question that Watson, even after bogeying 18 and falling apart in the four-hole playoff, is the lasting storyline of the 2009 British Open (with minimal apologies to Cink). For longtime golf fans, seeing Watson—as classy and successful a player as the game has seen—turn back the clock was inspirational. For casual fans, it was as intriguing a tournament as golf has staged in quite some time.* For non-fans, though, it was nothing short of ammunition.

*It’s an interesting question: Would a Watson victory have been more impressive than if Greg Norman had held on to win last year’s Open? And which would have had more influence on their respective legacies? I imagine the answer to the former is yes, and the latter is Norman.

Golf has long fought hard against the idea that it isn’t a real sport; over the last decade, this battle has been founded on the colossal figure of Tiger Woods. Woods is arguably—and ESPN made the argument—the most important athlete in the contemporary sports world; he is more dominant at his sport that anyone else and is, somewhat consequently, the most historically significant athlete of our time. Furthermore, Woods possesses an athleticism most golfers don’t. Even if he doesn’t need to showcase it frequently on the course, everyone knows it’s there. Say what you will, the guy is built.

As a result of all this, Tiger Woods legitimates golf as sport. Which is why golf is (deservedly) terrified of what might happen when Woods isn’t there. When he missed the British Open with a knee injury last year, 53-year-old Greg Norman led heading into the final round. When he missed the cut this year, 59-year-old Tom Watson did. The conclusion of the casual to non-golf fan is simple: Tiger Woods is the only competent golfer under the age of 50. In other words, there is the “This is what happens when you don’t have Tiger Woods around” effect.

That’s because golf is Tiger Woods in a way no other athlete has been singularly identifiable as his sport ever. For 13 years now, Tiger Woods has been the story in golf. The week before any major, the stories revolve around Tiger’s chances. The week after, they revolve around Tiger’s performance, whether it’s primary or secondary to the tournament’s finish. When he was hurt last year, the stories revolved around his absence. When a 59-year-old led this year’s Open after 36 holes, the stories revolved around Tiger missing the cut.

And although 59-year-old Tom Watson winning the British Open would have been a great story, it’s probably not the one golf wanted written. Commentators say that the beauty of golf is that it’s a game for life, that older players can compete on the same level as younger ones. This is true, but not to the extent professionally that most people think. Yes, golf has its older stars; players such as Kenny Perry (48) and Vijay Singh (46) compete on a regular basis on the tour. But other sports boast successful 40-somethings as well. Baseball has Jamie Moyer (46), hockey has Chris Chelios (47). Playing a sport in your 40s is not beyond comprehension.

Doing it in your upper 50s is. While golf has seen guys about to join the Senior Champions’ Tour (min. age 50) win tournaments before, it had never seen someone this old compete at a tournament this big. And a victory for Tom Watson would have torn down that last wall, would have permanently separated golf from all other sports, and would have vindicated the naysayers’ critique of golf as sport.

That’s why Sunday was a near-perfect day for golf, even if it wasn’t for its fans.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Josh on July 22, 2009 at 12:55 PM

    I think you overstate your point a bit. 59 year-old Tom Watson was ONE stroke away from winning the tournament: If he hadn’t flubbed that last putt, he would have won without the tie-breaker. It’s hard to believe that this doesn’t “[vindicate] the naysayers’ critique of golf as a sport.” The fact that a 59 year-old can finish second in a major seems to provide sufficient evidence.

    A second point I’d like to make is that–unlike most sports–golf is very dependent on the setting. Turnberry was very conducive to Watson’s style of play, but there are certain longer courses that a 59 year-old simply can’t win because of distance to the holes. Watson even stated he probably won’t be playing at St. Andrews next year for that reason. This observation can go both ways on the golf-as-sport argument: On the one hand, older players have more difficulty in certain courses and can’t consistently perform highly, giving credence to the idea that Watson’s performance was really an exception based on a variety of factors that went his way including the course. On the other hand, many sports fans want the best athlete to win and varying courses means that there has to be more strategy and less is determined by pure athleticism. While I don’t subscribe to this view, it could be an argument made against golf as a legitimate sport.

    Reply

  2. […] for players in their 40s and even 50s to contend in major championships these days. Tom Watson was a firm putt from winning the British Open last year at 57. Fred Couples was in it on the back nine on Sunday at this year’s Masters. Kenny Perry should […]

    Reply

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