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New age limit could block ageless Watson

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Associated Press
July 21, 2009
— Tom Watson was among the British Open champions whom the R&A consulted when it decided the game was getting younger and it was time to lower the age limit to 60 for winners of golf’s oldest championship.

It might be time to reconsider.


Imagine how much different that conversation would have been had the Royal & Ancient seen a performance for the ages at Turnberry, where a 59-year-old Watson was in the lead the final three days and came within an 8-foot putt of winning.


“I’m sure if someone at age 59 had been winning the championship, bringing down the age limit would have been lower on the agenda,” R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said Monday. “But we brought down the age limit in order to give more spaces in the championship to younger players allegedly in their prime to compete.”


Watson sure looked in prime time at Turnberry.


Perhaps more people should have paid attention on the eve of the British Open when Watson spoke in reverent tones about his affection for Turnberry, where he had won 32 years earlier in the famous “Duel in the Sun” against Jack Nicklaus. He explained all week why he can still complete on links courses that require shots to be struck pure, not necessarily with power.


Watson wound up beating all but one player in the field.


Tiger Woods didn’t even make it to the weekend, hitting the ball poorly into a northwest wind during a pivotal stretch along the coast. Two-time defending champion Padraig Harrington was never a factor, finishing 14 shots behind.


Stewart Cink, a worthy champion who closed with a 69, still needed help from the old man. Watson’s 8-iron on the 18th had just enough bounce to roll off the back of the green. In the playoff, Watson looked his age for the first time and lost by six shots.


“It would have been a hell of a story,” Watson said.


Cink was too young to remember Watson’s victory at Turnberry, although he played a practice round with him at the Masters this year and was struck by how cleanly Watson hit the ball. Playing against him when it counted was more impressive.


“The same Tom Watson that won this tournament in ’77 showed up here this week,” Cink said. “And he just about did it. He beat everybody but one guy. And it was really special.”


The yellow scoreboard towered over the 18th green beneath a blue Scottish sky on a quiet Monday morning. The traditional message in red letters had yet to be removed, a somber reminder of who


didn’t win the British Open.


Barring another turn-back-the-clock moment, Watson will go to St. Andrews next year for a farewell party.


The British Open is the only major that sets an age limit for its champions. The U.S. Open gives only a 10-year exemption, while the Masters and PGA Championship offer their winners a chance to play as long as they want.


Augusta National announced an age limit of 65 this decade when its former champions began quitting after one round, sometimes even sooner. The club backed off, however, and the age limit was never imposed. The Masters left it up to their champions to decide when it was best to stop.


The British Open it is the only major where age shouldn’t matter.


“It’s great to see the names of the past competing,” Dawson said. “But I do think it’s important that we see them in a state where they are reasonably competitive. We don’t want it to become a procession. It still has to be a golf championship.”


Watson, meanwhile, headed south to Sunningdale for the Senior British Open to compete against men his own age.


Watson’s only hope of playing the Open after next year is to finish among the top 10 at St. Andrews. If that doesn’t work, he would have to win the Senior British Open the following week.


Unless, of course, he wins at St. Andrews.


“I still have some of the shots to be able to play that golf course,” Watson said. “We’ll just have to see.”



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