Phil Mickelson

What does Tom Watson’s performance say about golf?

The British Open began as a story about Tiger Woods, because golf always is — whether Tiger’s playing or not. Then, after a disastrous stretch during yesterday’s second round, the question changed from whether Tiger would win his first major to the ratings-killing question of whether he’d miss the cut for the first time in ages.

And the whole time we were all gnashing our teeth over Tiger, this whole Tom Watson thing was bubbling under the surface. Nice story, the 59-year-old hanging around the top of the leaderboard on Thursday, and then again on Friday. But up until today the Watson angle has been more of a curiosity than a front page story. Perhaps some people figured it was just a British Open thing, since last year Greg Norman — who was 53 at the time — threatened to become the oldest Major winner when he took a two-shot lead into the final round at Royal Birkdale.

Watson, who hasn’t suffered from the same propensity to give away Majors on Sunday as Norman, finished today’s third round at Turnberry with a one stroke lead. Maybe Watson will win tomorrow and make history; maybe he’ll fall by the wayside like The Shark did last year.

Pretty shocking stuff either way, but what does this tell us about golf? Is it a sport? A game?  Are we watching one of the most amazing, historical athletic achievements in the history of professional sport, or is golf simply chess with graphite shafts?

This isn’t an issue of how much buzz is generated for the sport, or even what this means to Watson’s legacy (which didn’t need the help, as Watson was the guy who knocked Jack Nicklaus off his pedestal in the late 1970’s). The question is, what does it say about a physical activity where a 59-year-old can compete on the biggest stage with the masters of the game, all of them much closer to their prime (said to be in a golfer’s early-to-late 30’s) than Watson?

Golf is so precise, so mental, that for some players increased strength can even cause problems. I remember a tall, skinny kid I went to high school with who was one of the best golfers in the county, but took constant ribbing for his waifish figure. After graduating the guy went on a massive steroids regimen, and quickly blew up like Bobby Estalella. With his new musculature he could still hit a golf ball pretty far, but he was nowhere near the same player he was when he weighed less than 150 pounds. He also looked like you could pop his pecs with a needle, but that’s neither here nor there.

Watson has won five Open Championships, and has a game suited for links play. We all know that. However, what he’s doing this weekend, at his age, still astounds. In every other major sport in the world, competing at a high level over the age of 45 is a near impossibility, especially with the stakes and money involved (unless you happen to be a knuckleballer or an NHL legend).

Since as we mentioned earlier that everything golf-related turns into a conversation about Tiger, does Watson’s performance — which just happened to come during Tiger’s most embarrassing showing in years — make Tiger’s career more or less impressive? If near-seniors can win Majors, how can Tiger claim the title of “Best Athlete in the World”?

Actually, maybe surprisingly, Watson’s performance highlights just how amazing Tiger’s success has been, because it makes clear what everyone who’s ever stood over a putt with money riding on it knows: the game is at least 80% mental…if not more. That Tiger was mentally capable of dominating at such a young age is absolutely incredible, regardless of what you think of golf as a sport. Isn’t it now obvious that the body Tiger has sculpted, and the tight synthetic shirts he wears, aren’t as much to help him swing the club better as they are to intimidate the poor schlubs hitting balls next to him on the range?

You don’t need to be a great athlete to be a tremendous golfer, but you already knew that. John Daly. Angel Cabrera. Davis Love III. Fred Couples and his creaky back. Phil Mickelson and his manmaries. All of them have won more Majors than Sergio Garcia, who looks as if he could have just as easily been a professional tennis player if he had hung out on the other side of the country club as a kid.

(Note: As much as golfers can let themselves slide physically and succeed in their 30’s and 40’s, it probably pays to take care of one’s weight as one gets older to approach what Watson’s accomplishing right now. Hard to imagine a 59-year-old even wanting to make the trip to Turnberry if he looked like Daly or Cabrera.)

Now that it’s abundantly clear that a golfer needs a strong brain more than core strength, what would a Watson win tomorrow mean for the long-term future of golf? Nothing but good things, if you subscribe to the theory that mainstream golf is Tiger Woods.

If Watson, who measures in at 5’9″ and 160 pounds, can come this close to winning his sixth British Open at 59, it means that Woods will remain a threat to win any golf tournament he’s in until he retires. For TV and PGA execs who undoubtedly felt down about Tiger missing the cut yesterday, that’s a reassuring thought. The longer the story can stay about Tiger, the better.

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