With all due respect to Stewart Cink, this past weekend was not about him. It was never supposed to be, and it never will be. Yes, I know he won the British Open. But, when we talk about what went down at Turnberry years from now, we won’t be talking about Cink. We’ll be talking about the guy who didn’t win the tournament.
That would be the great Tom Watson.
It doesn’t matter that he lost Sunday. It doesn’t matter that he failed to par the 18th to win the whole thing in regulation. And it doesn’t matter that his dream turned into a nightmare on the third hole of the four hole playoff. Because what happened this past weekend was – quite possibly – the best sports story of the year.
Like I said a minute ago, this tournament will be remembered more for what Watson did than Cink’s victory. If you don’t believe me, well, tell me who won last year’s British Open. I’ll give you a minute.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.
Time’s up. Stumped? It was Padraig Harrington. We don’t really remember Harrington’s win, but we do remember that thrill that Greg Norman gave golf fans by holding a lead entering the final round a year ago. That would be 54-year old Greg Norman. The guy who choked away the ’96 Masters (and other majors) in spectacular fashion. The guy who hadn’t played full time on any tour for years. And yes, the guy who married Chris Evert. His run was more memorable than anything Harrington did. It, along with Watson’s incredible weekend, will be talked about for years to come.
I watched the final few holes (and the playoff) at an airport bar. The place was packed, no small feat considering it was in a small airport. And the one thing every person in that bar had in common was the fact they were all rooting for Watson to bring it home. There was the older gentleman nursing a Guinness – who kept talking about how great Watson was back in the day. There was the 22-year old Chicagoan who had never seen Watson in his prime who wanted the old guy to win it. There was a pretty diverse cross section of people all pulling for Watson.
I can’t talk for anyone else who was in that bar. I can only speak for myself. What happened this weekend took me back to a time when life was much simpler. Watson turned back the clock to 1977, when he and Jack Nicklaus squared off in what was called ‘The duel in the sun.’ I was six back then. I don’t recall how it all played out, but I do remember what I was doing all those years ago.
I was spending the summers with my parents and grandparents at a house they rented for the summer on Long Island. My grandfather, along with his brothers, owned a butcher store on the Washington Heights section of New York City. He would work Monday through Thursday and then drive out to spend the weekends with us on Friday.
My grandfather was a strong, hard working man. Back when he owned the store, he would get up at four in the morning to get everything ready. On most days he wouldn’t come home until well after 8 o’clock at night. For ten months out of the year my grandfather didn’t spend much time with anyone outside of his business. But, for those two months every summer he spent every moment of his free time with his family.
My Opa was born 94 years ago in Germany, and returned there to help fight Hitler in World War II. He fought for his country and fought against the genocide that claimed six million lives. There are memories he has from that time that he cherishes and talks about to this very day. There are also memories that are much darker – memories he never has, and never will, speak about.
I tell you all of this because I got to see my grandfather last week for the first time in months. It isn’t easy to see your family when you are about a thousand miles away. It’s harder when you see someone you love – someone you cherish so much – suffering through a difficult time.
That’s what is happening with my grandfather right now. He mourned the loss of his parents. He mourned the loss of five brothers and sisters. He mourned the loss of my grandmother, who passed away suddenly nine years ago.
His health is failing as well. He fell in his home (where he had been living on his own) in April. He couldn’t get up, and hasn’t been able to walk since. He spent three months in a rehab center (which is just another way of saying nursing home). Despite intense physical therapy, he has not been able to regain the ability to walk.
We’re talking about a man with a tremendous sense of pride here. Life has dealt him a lot of blows. But he’s always been able to withstand those blows and come back. He’s having a lot of difficulty getting off the canvas from the hand that life has dealt him these last few months. He isn’t sad. He isn’t angry at anyone. He’s disgusted with himself. He never blamed anyone else for anything that happened to him. He took accountability for everything.
As I said, my grandfather has a tremendous sense of pride. That’s why it was difficult for him to let anyone see him in the state he is in right now. It was even more difficult for me to see him as he is. This strong man – who I always looked up to as a giant in my life – is wheelchair bound.. This strong man has withered away – if he weighs seventy-five pounds it’s a lot. His clothes no longer fit him. His glasses are too big for his face. He now requires a live in aid, and no longer sleeps on the bed he did for so many years. He now sleeps in a hospital bed that has been set up for him in his bedroom – with metal railings on the side to make sure he doesn’t fall. It’s not an easy sight to take in.
His mind, though, is still there for the most part. He remembers everything, and likes to talk more about the past than he ever did before. He may repeat stories every now and then, but I don’t care – I still love listening to them. I could listen to those stories for hours and hours.
But it’s tough to see him going through what he’s going through right now. You can see the emotional pain on his face. The light in his eyes isn’t nearly as bright as it used to be. I’m not one who breaks down and cries a lot, but that’s exactly what I did when I left his apartment last week.
I know what you’re thinking. What does this have to do with Tom Watson and his run at Turnberry this past weekend?
All the talk of ’77 – all the talk of history – brought me back to that house in Long Island. I was no longer a thirty-eight year old man with his own family and his own problems to deal with. I was a six year old kid spending time with his grandfather – whether it was playing in the backyard or going to temple or whatever. He wasn’t the man stuck in that wheelchair like he is right now. He was the strong man from my childhood – the one that I always saw as invincible.
What Watson did this past weekend was get me to remember the man my grandfather was and all the good time that we shared. Not the man suffering right now. And for that, I only have three words that I want to say to Watson.
Thank you, Tom.