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The Evolving Perception of Tom Watson

For 71 holes, it was a love feast. It was a sparkling endorsement of the Fountain of Youth. Then, somewhere in the waist-high weeds at Turnberry, Tom Watson got out of that fountain and proceeded to drown. And all of the good feelings from this weekend went with him.

As Watson completed a disastrous four-hole playoff against Stewart Cink on Sunday, ABC announcer Mike Tirico said something to this extent: “Thank you, Tom Watson. We will never forget this Open because of you.”

Watson gave us another example of how age is just a number. At 59, his story was not only unlikely, but unprecedented. The oldest winner of a golf major is Julius Boros, who won the 1968 PGA Championship at the age of 48.

But how will we remember Watson when the journey was brilliant, but the destination was a dead end?

Now, these two comparisons that I’m about to make don’t really describe Watson’s situation well, but they are two that have popped into my head right now, so bear with me.

Will Watson be remembered as a bit of a Jean Van de Velde or rather a Josh Hamilton?

Watson didn’t collapse like Van de Velde did at the 1999 British Open, but he did have that one shot lead going to the 18th hole on Sunday, lost it and then seemed to just run out of gas in the playoff.

We all know that Van de Velde didn’t win this tournament in 1999 because of the spectacular way that he threw it away. But that also shields many casual golf fans from remembering that Paul Lawrie was given the claret jug in Carnoustie.

Ten years from now, people may certainly remember this past weekend for more about how Watson lost than that Cink won.

Or, on a more positive note, Watson’s unexpected play from Thursday through Sunday afternoon may be remembered as the ultimate highlight, no matter the result. Much like Hamilton at the 2008 home run derby, the magnitude of his performance may end up overshadowing the ending.

Just like how nobody seems able to recall that Justin Morneau actually won that derby.

At the start of the tournament, Tom Watson was in the field and out of the minds of everyone in the gallery. Then, with shots like his putt on the 16th hole of the third round, he woke up the echos and displayed the skill that has made him one of the sport’s greats.

And at the most important moment, he lost. Sports has a way helping us not remember second place, unless second place gives us something to remember, good or bad.

I think that most of the world will look back at this tournament and think of Watson in a uplifting sense, first and foremost. Similar to what 53-year-old Greg Norman accomplished at last year’s Open, the sentimentality of Watson’s story will most likely linger with fans longer than his defeat.

Still, I just can’t help but think that other people — like me — will look back and say, “Yeah, remember how well Tom Watson played, but … .” I mean, HE HAD IT!

Watson said after the disappointing ending, “It would have been a hell of a story.” It would have been tremendous if Watson had won, but don’t be mistaken; this is still a story. This version is just a little less storybook.

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