The history of professional golf can largely be broken down into various eras defined by the player (or, in certain cases, players) who stood head and shoulders above the rest of the field thanks to their stellar play.
It’s hard to think of anyone who was able to dominate to the degree (or length) Tigers Woods did after he took the PGA Tour by storm toward the end of the new millennium. With that said, there are a few other legends who stake a claim to a similarly impressive reign.
Ben Hogan was the man to beat in the 1940s and ’50s before Arnold Palmer laid claim to a throne that Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player each challenged following their rise in the 1960s, and while those two men still managed to hold their own in the decade or so that followed, they eventually gave way to a successor in the form of Tom Watson.
Watson turned pro in 1971, and while it took him a few years to adjust to the PGA Tour, he secured his first major victory at The Open in 1975, which marked the first of five times he’d walk away on top at the tournament most Americans refer to as “The British Open.”
His final win at that event came in 1983 when he won the eighth major of his career at Royal Birkdale Golf Club, and while he had plenty of opportunities to add another Claret Jug to his trophy case, he ultimately failed to do so.
It’s hard to imagine even Watson himself believed he was going to have the chance to do exactly that when he headed to Turnberry for The Open in 2009 at the age of 59—a tournament where he came less than ten feet away from one of the most unlikely victories in the history of professional sports before seeing things fall apart.
How Tom Watson came this close to becoming the oldest major winner in the history of golf
Watson had been playing on the Champions Tour (a.k.a. the Senior Tour) for a decade when he cashed in the “lifetime” exemption (which actually expires when you turn 60) The British Open grants to anyone who wins the tournament.
The Open hadn’t really been kind to him after he made that pivot, as the nine tournaments he participated in after leaving the PGA Tour resulted in him missing the cut four times and finishing in the middle or rear of the pack the rest (his best result had been a tie for 18th at Royal St George’s in 2003).
Watson got off to a scathing hot start in his first round; he headed into the clubhouse sitting at -5 thanks to a bogey-free round where he recorded five birdies to end up one shot behind Miguel Ángel Jiménez once Thursday wrapped up.
Things took a turn for the worse when he posted five bogeys on Friday, although he was able to cancel them out with five birdies. While he was undoubtedly impacted by the windy and rainy conditions, the rest of the field wasn’t immune, and he actually headed into the weekend in a tie for first along with Steve Marino.
The weather hadn’t improved that much by the time Saturday rolled around, and even though he dropped a stroke with a one-over 71 on Moving Day, he fared better than the bulk of the competition and officially became the talk of the tournament after securing sole possession of the first spot at -4 (one stroke ahead of Ross Fisher and Mathew Goggin).
Watson got off to a fairly rough start on Sunday with bogeys on the 1st and 3rd hole. However, he eventually found his groove, and while he had a few more missteps along the way, he arrived on the 18th tee box with a one-stroke lead over Stewart Cink and the chance to become the oldest major winner in golf history (a record that was then held by Julius Boros, who won the 1968 PGA Championship at the age of 48) with a par.
After a solid drive off of the tee, Watson pulled out an eight iron and overshot the green but was still in prime position for an up and down. He opted to putt his third shot from the rough as opposed to chipping it, but once again overshot the flag to leave himself a makeable but by no means guaranteed eight-footer for the win.
Unfortunately, the putt never even came close to sniffing the hole, and things fell apart in the four-hole playoff where Watson shot +4 as Cink sailed to victory by finishing at -2.
That finish may have nothing on Jean van de Velde’s epic collapse at Carnoustie in 1999, but it hasn’t gotten any easier to watch.