He stood therelast Saturday like a carving on a mythical Mount Watson, poised at the upperend of the 6th fairway at Whistling Straits, studying the green below whiledeciphering his next shot in the U.S.¬†Senior Open. From a spectator'svantage point below, Tom Watson looked heroic, like George Washington crossingthe Delaware. At least one photographer thought so too, because the moment wassplashed across the front of the Sunday sports section of the Milwaukee JournalSentinel, under the headline lonely at the top. ¬∂ Watson truly is golfingroyalty to those of a certain age, the last in a line of superstars from thetime before Tiger. In the 1960s golf had its Big Three--Jack Nicklaus, ArnoldPalmer and Gary Player, with Billy Casper in the mix. Next came Lee Trevino andJohnny Miller. And then there was Watson, who would prove the worthiestsuccessor to the Big Three by winning eight major championships.
Now 57, Watson hasdeep lines on his face, a weathered neck and the trace of a limp from a bum hipthat makes it difficult for him to spread his legs wide enough to ride hishorses at his ranch outside Kansas City, Mo. ("My wife said I should getskinnier horses," Watson says.) But his rhythmic swing has aged better thana Mercedes, and last week, on a windswept monster of a course in Haven, Wis.,that the Watson of old would have boldly engaged and conquered, the old Watsondidn't fare too badly. A six-under-par 66 in the second round gave him the36-hole lead, and a vintage display of scrambling kept him at the top after 54.After a couple of birdies around the turn on Sunday, Watson was three strokesahead with eight to play and on the verge of winning the Senior Open for thefirst time.
Watson is at thepoint in his career where he is a sentimental favorite. Nobody says it, nobodywrites it, but the truth is that everyone roots for him because the clock isticking. He has done nearly all there is to do in the game. The only major hefailed to win was the PGA Championship, although he satisfyingly took the 2001Senior PGA. The last major milestone left for him is the Senior Open. Watsonhas finished second three times. Once, in 2002, he lost a five-hole playoff toDon Pooley. Last year at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kans., before a partisanhome crowd, he was edged out by Allen Doyle.
Last week Watsonwas outplayed down the stretch by Brad Bryant (affectionately known asDoctor¬†Dirt during his PGA Tour days). The combo platter of a remarkableround by Bryant, whose 68 was the low score of the day, and an eight-holecollapse by Watson, who shot a seven-over 43 on the final nine, led to Bryant'sfirst major victory and another stinging defeat for Watson. "Yeah, 43doesn't get it done," was all he could say afterward.
Bryant, whofinished three shots ahead of Ben Crenshaw, four ahead of Loren Roberts andfive clear of Watson, was humble in victory. "I've always been ajourneyman," he said. "To beat a couple of the best players in theworld is near miraculous. I don't think any of us understand how significantthis is for a guy like me."
A victory, though,would've been oh-so-significant for Watson. That's why his favorite better-ballpartner, two-time U.S.¬†Open champion Andy North, and North's daughterAndrea had driven the two hours from their house in Madison to walk the final18 in Sunday's withering heat with Tom's wife, Hilary, and his son, Michael.You never know if Watson's next major victory will be his last, and you don'twant to miss it.
North says hisfriend has a lot of game left. "He can still really play. People would beblown away by how little he practices now. It's fun to watch him when he'son."
Saturday's round,during which Watson scraped together a 73, was right out of 1980. His downwindapproach to the 5th green bounced hard on the front of the green and rolleddown a slope to the right, leaving a tricky 45-foot putt up the hill and over acrest. When Watson rolled it in, he pumped a clenched fist in the air as anexclamation point, a goose-bump moment. Two holes later, on a par-3 calledShipwreck, his tee shot drifted right and bounced down a terrace into the roughnear a bunker. He was short-sided and had a terrible lie, yet played a sweetpitch that spun to a stop 20¬†feet past the pin. He rolled that one in too.Another clenched fist, another roar from the gallery, more goose bumps.
Sunday was anotherstory. After Watson made back-to-back birdies at the 9th and 10th holes, therewas reason to believe that this might finally be his time. But it all suddenlyunraveled at the par-5 11th, where he hit a poor drive and a chunky nine-ironthird and then needed four shots to get down from in front of the green. It wasan ugly double-bogey 7. "That was a real body blow," Watson said.
He three-puttedthe 12th. Bogey. His drive at the 13th missed the fairway by a yard. Anotherbogey. There was one last Watson Par--a phrase that entered the game's lexiconin the 1970s when Watson's scrambling abilities were at their zenith. Hisapproach at 14 flew the green and landed on a downslope on the back edge of abunker. He appeared to have no chance of getting his ball onto the green.Somehow, he splashed out to eight feet and sank the putt.
That momentarilystopped the bleeding, but his tee shot at 15 ran through a fairway bunker intothe rough next to a low-lying bush. We'll skip the gory details: He made adouble bogey while Bryant, a hole ahead, hit the shot of the championship, athree-wood second to just off the green at the par-5. He chipped close for thebirdie that put him three ahead, and just like that, it was Bryant's Open.
"I Tom's hipwas hurting him, but he's never going to tell you that," North said. Watsondoesn't make excuses. He plays on, but not next week, when the British Openreturns to Carnoustie, the site of his first Open win. He won't be therebecause his daughter, Meg, is getting married. Watson will play the week afterin the Senior British Open at Muirfield, where he is revered for winning fiveOpens. The Scots know royalty, and heroes, when they see them.
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Head for the Hills
With the addition of Erin Hills, Wisconsin suddenly hastwo courses with major plans
ON JULY 2, when the U.S. Senior Open unofficiallykicked off with practice rounds at scenic Whistling Straits on the westernshore of Lake Michigan, USGA executive director David Fay was busy inspecting amagnificent major championship site.
No, not that magnificent major championship site. Faywas touring Erin Hills, about 60 miles southwest of the Straits in the tiny(pop. 673) village of Erin, snuggled in the rolling countryside north ofMilwaukee. Erin Hills had been awarded the 2008 Women's Public Links before iteven opened last fall, believed to be a first for the traditionally cautiousUSGA. A men's or a women's amateur is expected to follow (in 2011, but youdidn't hear that from us), but the real buzz last week was that Erin Hills isalso considered a lock to land the big one--the U.S. Open--probably in2017.
Wisconsin went 71 years between majorchampionships--from the 1933 PGA Championship won by Gene Sarazen at Blue MoundCountry Club near Milwaukee, to the 2004 PGA won in a playoff by Vijay Singh atWhistling Straits. Suddenly, like a long-childless woman who has twins, thegolf-mad state has two venues poised to step into the major rota. The Straitshas two more PGAs (2010 and '15) and a Ryder Cup ('20) already scheduled.
"Wisconsin has gone from not even being on theradar screen to being so high on the radar," Fay says. "I'd never haveguessed that you'd have multiple major championship sites within 60 miles ofeach other--in Wisconsin. The only other place that could happen for us is NewYork. Talk about how quickly things can change."
Erin Hills is the pet project of 62-year-oldmultimillionaire Bob Lang, who made his fortune in the greeting-card business.Ask the bespectacled Lang about an Open at Erin Hills, and he smiles knowinglybut says only, "It's an honor for us simply to be considered."
A public course with a $150 greens fee, Erin Hills isOpen-worthy for a number of reasons, but primarily because of its size (640acres--plenty of room for corporate tents, TV trucks and spectators), itsminimalist design (by Mike Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten) and its location(35 miles from Milwaukee, 100 from Chicago). Erin Hills was constructed onrolling terrain with ridges and hollows, all naturally carved from the earthduring the last Ice Age. "While Whistling Straits is a creation ofman," says Fay, "Erin Hills is nature dealing with land the way we dealwith lint. The ice sort of threw everything around."
The course, which can be stretched to 8,200 yards fromthe tips, also has some controversial quirks. There are back-to-back par-3s onthe front side; the second par-3, the 201-yard 7th, has a blind tee shot. The10th green is 78 yards long with a deep swale, while the short (351 yards)par-4 2nd hole has a tiny green of 1,800 square feet.
Originally, there were several houses near the entranceto Erin Hills, but because they were visible from the course, Lang bought anddemolished them. Look east and in the distance you'll see Holy Hill, a Catholicmonastery atop the highest point in the area and a renowned landmark.
"Erin Hills reminds me of Sand Hills inNebraska," Fay says. "The difference is that Sand Hills is remote,while Erin Hills only feels remote. I'm really juiced about itsfuture."
Golf fans in the Badger State will lift a brew tothat.
"I've always been a journeyman," Bryant said."To beat a couple of the best players in the world is NEAR MIRACULOUS FORME."
Photograph by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
NEARLY MAN Watson has three seconds, last week's fourth and a fifth in eight Senior Opens.
NOTHING BUT TROUBLE On the final eight holes Watson hit only one fairway and green, and had two three-putts.
19TH HOLE Quirky Erin Hills has an extra par-3, the Bye Hole, that could be put into play during a championship.