It’s still hard to think about the 2009 British Open when a 59-year-old Tom Watson was a par away from winning a sixth claret jug, 34 years after winning his first.
“It was almost,” Watson said that day after the impossible slipped away in a playoff. “Almost. The dream almost came true. … It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn’t it?”
A week ago today, the Masters Tournament stage was ripe for another helluva story. A diverse leaderboard was rich with opportunity ranging from perhaps the youngest Masters winner to the oldest major champion.
Bubba Watson certainly made history of his own. He became the 17th multiple champion at Augusta – the seventh to claim his second green jacket within two years after his first, joining the elite company of Horton Smith, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo (back-to-back) and Phil Mickelson.
Only eight players have won more than two green jackets. At age 35 with a lifetime exemption to play a course he’s so well suited for, Watson’s odds of winning another are strong. He’d be a popular recurring champion with fans who enjoy his almost reckless power style.
But Watson’s accomplishment was not time sensitive. He could have done it next year or the year after or five years down the road and it would have had the same impact.
Only a few players had a chance to accomplish something transcendent last Sunday and it had to happen NOW.
Jordan Spieth, 20 years old, only got one shot to become the youngest Masters winner. When he returns next April, he’ll be older than Tiger Woods was in 1997.
The clock is ticking on old guys Miguel Angel Jimenez, 50, or Fred Couples, 54, to believe they have many more – if any – realistic chances of getting in that position again to become the oldest major winner.
Adam Scott had only that shot to become the fourth back-to-back winner and join Faldo as the only players to get their first two consecutively.
All of these story lines were so tantalizingly close.
Only Bubba happened.
Golf is unusual in a sports sense in that fans don’t tend to root for the underdog. It’s natural to cheer against the Yankees or Patriots or Heat or other dominant teams in other pro sports. Everybody gets a kick out of Georgia Southern beating Florida in football or a Mercer eliminating Duke in the NCAA Tournament.
But golf fans tend to root for the greater historical context. When the U.S. Open returns to Pinehurst No. 2 in June, flashbacks to Michael Campbell’s victory over Woods the last time it was there in 2005 will be tinged with more regret than wonder.
With Woods injured and Mickelson aging, golf is looking for a new generation of superstars to keep it interesting as they inevitably fade. Spieth has the makings of a generational talent to join guys like Rory McIlroy in the major championship plots of the next two decades. What better way to kickstart that legacy than a transcendent major triumph at an early age the way Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros and Woods did in generations before him.
Only it didn’t happen.
“Although it sits a little hard right now, I’ll be back and I can’t wait to be back,” Spieth said.
Odds are that he will, but there are no guarantees in golf. How many future major titles were foretold when a 19-year-old Sergio Garcia came leaping into the golf picture with a fresh challenge of Woods at the 1999 PGA? What happened to all those inevitable green jackets when Greg Norman sprung onto the scene with a first-round lead and fourth-place finish in his Masters debut?
Spieth might be different, and we hope he is. He’s a mixture of composure and volatility that makes him a compelling player. It’s not as if he melted down under pressure like McIlroy in 2011, shooting even-par 72 with a few unfortunate bogeys that Watson capitalized on to seize control.
The young Spieth might come right back like McIlroy did and win his next major start at the U.S. Open. Or he might take longer to develop into a major winner like Scott. Or he might grow frustrated with unfulfilled promise like Garcia.
All those questions and burdens could have been lifted last week. Time will tell how much history was lost with a missed opportunity.