If you could golf back time

If you could golf back time and throw the ball to a golfer and say “have another ago” who would it be and where? Well three nominations sprung to mind.

For reasons of partisan parochialism, Bernhard Langer, Kiawah Island, 1991, was an immediate thought. It seemed slightly perverse actually, that such an ill-tempered match found itself concluding with two of the games good guys, Hale Irwin, and Bernhard Langer. Somehow though, I’m not sure a Ryder Cup match quite has the historical resonance to qualify, and the reasons for thinking along these lines originally were more tribal rather than golfing. In any event, that missed putt would only have tied the match. Indeed, the passage of time has probably embedded it in the cups mythology rather than leaving any enduring sense of unrightable tragedy. Personally, I’m far from sure that the long-term effects of Kiawah weren’t actually positive for Europe. It’s been lamented a few times by American observers that the Ryder Cup means more to Europe than it does the US. Don’t under-estimate the legacy of Kiawah Island in this. It was used as a motivational reference point for the next decade, and somehow or other, it’s been successfully handed down into inheriting generations who weren’t even part of it.

I’m turning instead to a favourite player of mine, and am struggling to separate two candidate incidents. On both occasions Tom Watson is the recipient of my charity.

The first nomination is his second shot at St Andrews in the 1984 Open at the par 4, seventeenth; ‘The Road Hole’. As the climax approached Watson was jousting with Ballesteros. The two looked destined to shoot it out.

There are two lines off the tee. The safest is to drive to the left and the wider part of the fairway. It does however leave you a longer second into a narrow target. The riskier option is to drive blind over the Old Course hotel and carve off the dog-leg. This involves aiming at the narrowest part of the fairway but will shave significant yardage off your second, making the approach a whole lot easier to manage.

As they stood on their respective tees within 10 minutes of each other, commentators confidently predicted the conservative Watson would drive to the left, and the cavalier Ballesteros to the right. The opposite happened. Watson elected the riskier route and struck a tee-shot blind, flirting with the out-of-bounds to the right. Tom stood on the tee with his arms out-stretched, doing a passable impression of the statue of Christ the Redeemer, in Rio. He didn’t know what had happened? Word filtered back however, that his bravery had been rewarded. There was no need to put down another ball. Tom Watson was in position ‘A’. Ten minutes earlier, faced with the same dilemma, Seve had gone safe and found light rough instead about 100 yds further back. Improbably Seve had conjured up one of those miraculous escape shots that only he could. As Tom stood in the fairway, he could see the Spaniard holing out on 17 for a rescue par, his first of the week having played it in bogeys for the three rounds previous. Seve had got away with one, but Tom was sitting pretty. The outcome would hinge on his next shot.

Context is perhaps important here. Watson was chasing Harry Vardon’s record and a chance to equal it, and chisel a sixth Open victory into the history books. Not only that, he would do so at ‘the home of golf’ and complete an unprecedented clean sweep of the Scottish roster having previously tamed Carnoustie, Turnberry, Troon and Muirfield.

Watson played, but tragically went a club long, he cannoned through the green and onto the road leaving him hard up against the perimeter wall. He bogeyed. Damn! All wasn’t completely lost yet. Seve still had to attempt the 18th, but with the door ajar he didn’t need asking twice. As it transpired, Seve made a birdie on ‘Tom Morris’, which might have helped ease Watson angst a bit, as the dropped shot on 17 needn’t have been as terminal as it appeared

I think the reason that probably prevents me throwing the ball back to Tom and asking him to try again at this hole, is that there’d be no guarantee he would go onto win. If I’m granting someone the chance to rewrite history and golf back time, then I at least want to have a good chance of achieving my desired result

Fast forward then to Turnberry and 2009. A 59 year old Watson has an 8 foot putt at the last to win the Open (and again a second chance to match Vardon). It really has to be this. The country collectively groaned as the ball slid past the hole and the clearly fatigued Watson would perish in the play-off to Stewart Cink

Spare a thought for Turnberry though. We believe we’re correct in recalling that they started a tradition of naming a facility after their Open winners, usually a bar, restaurant, or meeting room. They must have looked down the list of entrants nervously at the start of the week. In English a ‘Sink’ is a domestic drain, and can also be used to describe a socially deprived housing estate. Mind you, the identity of the 1994 winner should have served as a salutary warning of the perils of this policy (Nick Price). Could you really hope to market the ‘Sink Bar’ and ‘Pricey Restaurant’?

Note to self – next time the Open comes to Turnberry, have a look at the field and back the player with the least attractive name on the fixed odds

If you fancy avenging Tom’s Turnberry tragedy, then we invite you to play the course, along with Troon and Prestwick on very special terms. All you need to do is correctly forecast who will win the US Open and we’ll pay your green fees, hotels as advertised, and golf transport within Scotland.

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