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Finding new tournament favorite is elementary

Chip Ellis
Tom Watson got his third round started with this birdie putt on the opening hole.

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS - With the departure of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, many here have scrambled to find their favorite heading into the final round of the Greenbrier Classic golf tournament.

There's leader Webb Simpson, a fine choice. There are those right behind him - Troy Kelly, Ken Duke, J.B. Holmes and Charlie Beljan - who are making names for themselves.

Personally, though, I have a favorite. And I'm surprised he hasn't become the fan favorite.

He's 62. The last time he made the cut in a regular PGA Tour event - not a major - was the 2007 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. And he was inducted in the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1988.

He is, of course, Tom Watson. With Woods gone, Watson is the only connection in the field to the Greenbrier's adopted son, the late Sam Snead. And it is a strong connection. They are the resort's only golf emeriti. They are the only two to post top-20 finishes in at least one major in five different decades.

On Saturday, Watson played in the real-feel 100-degree heat. He is minus-1. He's standing tall.

"I'm in OK shape," he smiled afterward. "I didn't play very well today. I hit a lot of sketchy iron shots. Didn't hit them as crisply as I did [Friday]. I didn't drive the ball too badly, but I just kind of left it out there with the irons."

The point is, he's still leaving it out there.

"It's nice playing against the kids," Watson said. "I call them the kids. They really are the kids."

It's a joy to watch Watson, one of the most complete players of all time. It's a joy to watch the way he surveys a putt from front to back, hiking his left pant leg up before kneeling to eye it. It's a joy to watch the way he still has coil left in the strike of his drives. (He's averaging 310.5 yards per drive in the tournament.)

And there's the gentlemanly way Watson goes about his business. There's a Ben Hogan feel to him.

Here's the secret though: Watson still has a burning competitive spirit.

"If he played Colonial, Hilton Head and here - and not the 8,000-yard courses - Tom could still make cuts and be competitive," said Davis Love III. "He's a competitive guy ... Unbelievable. Hip, injuries and still competitive."

Those around Watson say he's certainly loving the action - knowing Woods and Mickelson couldn't make the cut.

But, yes, feel free to still romanticize Watson's slot. He is special. He is different.

After his drive on No. 1, Watson was crossing the bridge over Howard's Creek when he stopped. Playing partners D.J. Trahan and Brendon de Jonge marched across in businesslike fashion.

It wasn't a moment like when Watson kissed the Swilken Bridge at No. 18 in St. Andrews in his last British Open. It was, however, nice. He and wife Hilary stopped over Howard's Creek and searched for and pointed at trout. It seemed a fishy way of stopping and smelling the roses.

"I always do that here," Watson said. "I check out the trout everywhere here. The bridge at No. 15; the bridge at No. 1. I'm checking where those big boys are."

He's a sportsman. One still competing in a new era.

"We used to have to get to tournaments ourselves," Watson said. "There were no courtesy cars. We had to bring our own practice balls. There was no food. We had to buy that in the clubhouse. We ate with the members. They would, though, get you pretty good rates on hotels. My first year, if I paid over $10 a night for a hotel, that was a lot of money."

That first year was 1971. Watson was born in 1949. Yet he continues to give us thrills. Who can forget his 2009 run at the British Open in Turnberry, Scotland, at age 59? And now, here, at 62, Watson has made the cut and is playing on the final day of the Greenbrier Classic. Yes, he remains a champ on the Champions Tour, but this might not happen again. It is something to be savored.

"He's the greatest player out there," a stray caddy said passing by.

Indeed, Tom marches on.

Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, mitchvingle@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.

 


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