Watson's second thoughts a mix of good, bad

Former PGA great's rally, Caves crowds are joy, but `it's not fun to finish 2nd'

July 01, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

He tried to smile. He tried to shake as many hands as he could. He looked like he had just run an uphill marathon, but everywhere he went, people wanted to thank him. What a great day for Senior PGA golf, they shouted, and he nodded back, acknowledging that they were right.

It just wasn't a great day for Tom Watson.

"It's not a lot of fun to finish second," said Watson, who did it for the fourth time this season yesterday by losing to Don Pooley in what turned out to be a five-hole playoff at the U.S. Senior Open. "It's disappointing. I've been doing it a lot lately."

What made it so tough to swallow was how brilliantly Watson played at times yesterday, especially on the back nine at Caves Valley Golf Club. Standing on the ninth tee, Watson trailed Pooley by five shots, and it looked like the U.S. Golf Association could start engraving the trophy. But what happened down the stretch was some of the most exciting golf the Senior PGA Tour has seen in a long, long time.

Though Watson had struggled with his putter all week, on the ninth hole he finally found the perfect antidote: Just hit the darn thing inside 10 feet. After a great drive, he made just his second birdie of the day by sticking a 6-iron in close. Though it got him only to 6-under par, still four shots back of Pooley, things started to click.

After a nice drive with a 2-iron, Watson birdied the 10th hole with a sand wedge, knocking his approach inside of 2 feet, and suddenly it was a whole new ballgame.

"That's when you get light on your feet," Watson said. "You can just skate up the fairways when you're feeling like that."

As the adrenaline started pumping, Watson's putter woke up for the first time since he shot a first-round 67. He trickled in another birdie putt from about 12 feet on the 13th hole, then followed it with another birdie on 14.

At 15, he sent shivers through the gallery, making his third birdie in a row and tying Pooley at 10-under, converting a 25-foot putt that broke three feet to his left.

Watson might have won the tournament outright if not for an errant shot at 16, which turned out to be his lone mistake on the back nine. Standing in the fairway with a sand wedge, Watson hit the ball right of the green and couldn't get up and down to save par. When Pooley made par with a terrific shot out of the deep rough, he regained the lead.

"On 16, I was between clubs," Watson said. "I tried to hit an easy wedge, and I just got lazy. I wasn't going at the hole; I was going to the right of it. And sometimes when I do that, I get lazy."

With the pressure on, Watson looked every bit like the player who won eight major tournaments during his prime. Statistically, the 17th hole was the toughest all week at Caves Valley, but Watson hit a 5-iron 15 feet behind the hole and made the putt to again tie Pooley. He parred 18 to get into the playoff, and by then the whole gallery had worked itself into a frenzy.

"The fans were having a great time," Watson said. "Whenever we go to a new location like this and play golf in front of new people, we get that excitement, that enthusiasm. You can feel it. It's fresh. It's genuine. It's raw."

Watson's magic, however, finally ran out during the playoff, especially when it came to his driver. In five playoff holes, he hit the fairway once. Though he scrambled and made par, Pooley kept putting the pressure on him with exceptional up-and-downs.

Twice Pooley looked like he had put Watson away, but twice Watson made putts to stay in the tournament. On the first sudden-death playoff hole, Watson two-putted from 60 feet, and on the second sudden-death hole he matched Pooley's birdie with an 8-foot birdie putt of his own.

When asked afterward whether he had ever made two clutch like that and then failed to go on and win, Watson was quick to answer, shaking his head in disbelief.

"No," he said. "That usually does the trick."

It wasn't a great day to be Tom Watson. But it was a heck of a day to admire what he almost accomplished.

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