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Where Getting Old Isn`t Quite So Bad
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July 19, 2009, 09:35 PM
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Tom Watson, age 59, has a one-stroke lead going into the final round of the British Open. Watson has won five British Opens already, but no major championships in 25 years. Watson won`t win, just as 53-year-old Greg Norman couldn`t hold his 3rd round lead in last year`s British Open.

Still, it is conceivable that Watson could win because I once was there to see an even older player almost win against a major championship quality field (featuring, among others, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Johnnie Miller) under major championship conditions. So, please forgive me indulging in some golf nostalgia.

The first time I saw Watson play in person was 35 years ago at the final round of the 1974 LA Open at historic Riviera, back when he was known as the best player on the PGA tour without a victory. Powerful Santa Ana winds dried out the greens making them US Open fast. The wind also made the course play the opposite of normal, when the prevailing winds blew off the ocean. For example, playing into the wind on the 426 yard 9th hole, Lee Trevino had to hit driver off the fairway to reach the green. In contrast, on the downwind 315 yard tenth hole, Tom Weiskopf hit a towering teeshot that was blown at least 50 yards past the hole. That would be the equivalent of about a 450 yard drive today with today`s technology.

In a wild scramble, Watson took the final round lead and looked headed for his first victory. Then he hooked his approach shot out of bounds on the 12th and faded. As the leaders faltered in the wind, an unlikely contender began to rise up the leaderboard, a player in his 39th PGA season who was only two weeks shy of his 62nd birthday: Sam Snead. A double-jointed marvel who liked to win bets by kicking the ceiling, Snead`s swing was as fine-looking as when he had defeated Ben Hogan in a playoff at the famous 1950 LA Open at Riviera, which was Hogan`s first tournament after a horrific car crash 12 months earlier that almost led to Hogan`s legs being amputated.

In golf, your fine motor skills are the first to go, so Snead had taken to putting croquet-style through his legs. When that was banned as undignified, he shifted to the semi-croquet side-saddle method, with his feet together, facing the hole. It looked odd, but that windy day in 1974, it worked.

When Snead birdied the 71st hole to pull only one shot behind 32-year-old Dave Stockton, the roar was the loudest I ever heard on a golf course until I turned on my TV during the 1986 Masters just as 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus`s eagle putt on 15 fell in.

On the 18th tee, Snead, a master psychological gamesman, slyly told Stockton, "`You probably don`t remember this, but in 1950, I birdied the last two holes to beat Hogan." Snead fought his way to a par on the uphill, into-the-wind 18. Stockton drove weakly, barely clearing the cliff. In In the rough, 245 yards from the green, with Snead standing close to fluster him, Stockton slashed a three wood as hard as he could swing to knock it to 12 feet for his winning birdie. Stockton told Snead, "I`ll bet Hogan didn`t hit it that close."