08/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On a Sunday in Scotland

It's only a game for the elite on this side of "the pond," as they say.

Over there, where golf began, it's played by everyone from the assembly line worker to the hedge fund manager. If you live in St. Andrews, you can buy an (affordable) annual pass that allows you to play each of the seven courses owned by the St. Andrews Trust. One of them is the fabled Old Course.

So golf is a national game in Scotland.

And yesterday, that nation held its collective breath as a legend just shy of his sixtieth birthday came within eight feet of winning The Open Championship, golf's oldest and most hallowed crown, on a weather beaten track call Turnberry, famous for prior great moments in the sport, a runway used by the RAF in World War II, and winds that blow off the Irish Sea in changing fifteen minute increments.

Now it is also famous for something else.

Tom Watson . . . 2.0

When he came to Ailes earlier in the week, he was just a relic. He had already won The Open five times. Once at this very course, in the now infamous "Duel in the Sun" in 1975 in a play off victory against Jack Nicklaus that both greats had made it into with enormous birdie putts on the final hole of regulation play. He had already won nine major tournaments and countless regular tour events. But because golf is the one sport where relics still get to play competitively, this five time winner of what we Americans, much to the consternation of the British, call the "British Open," was allowed to tee it up.

Nothing of the sort could ever happen in any of our home grown sports. Sure, Satchel Paige played for a minor league baseball team in his fifties, and the occasional forty something trots out onto one or more of our football (not soccer) fields every fifth autumn or so to steal a page from the past.

But you won't find any sixty year olds in the World Series . . . or the Super Bowl.

They'll be on the couch.


Where I was for six hours on Sunday.

Only I was participating.

Of all the sports, the four hundred year old one we call golf is the most like life. Like life, it is very hard to get right. Winston Churchill once quipped that "Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into a even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose." Though also attributed to him, Churchill did not say "Golf consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." But he easily could have. And the point would have been the same.

It ain't easy.

Like life, it also ain't fair.

In one of his famous press conferences in the '60s, JFK was asked about the resentment reservists might feel on being called up to serve. He noted that inequity was inherent in the world. Some serve and die. Some are wounded. Some are never called up. "Life is unfair," said the then President. Today, that comment seems harsh. But Kennedy had the right to make it. His older brother had been killed in World War II and he himself had been seriously injured. Though some were never called, they both served. And one died.

Life is unfair . . . and so is golf. Kennedy knew that too. Unbeknownst to voters, he was one of the best golfers to be President -- a single digit handicap. He kept it a secret in 1960 because he was contrasting his youth to President Eisenhower's age, and did not want the country to think it was electing another golfer (Ike was an aficionado of the sport, regularly leaving spike marks on the floor of the Oval Office as he returned from the White House putting green he had installed).

The unfairness of it all was in abundant evidence in Scotland yesterday. For 71 holes, the near sixty year old had confounded all that the evil golf gods could throw at him. He carefully avoided the numerous pot bunkers designed to gobble balls and inflate scores. Like an ancient mariner, he assayed and navigated the variable winds (oddly, on Saturday, he was the only golfer who left the first tee box before he hit to get a sense of how the wind was blowing across the first fairway; age and experience sometimes amount to wisdom). He played within himself, never expecting or asking more than that of which his own aged frame was capable.

And he made putt after improbable putt.

One from sixty feet. Another from near eighty feet. Too many to count from between ten and twenty feet. And a whole host from five to ten feet.

Except that last one on the 72nd hole that would have won the tournament. The one eight feet from the hole. The one that should not have been there. The one left from that first putt from off the green that should not have been there. Because no sixty year old can hit an eight iron flush at the pin 150 plus yards away on the 72nd hole on Championship Sunday . . . without the damn ball staying on the green.

Except this time it didn't.

Life is unfair.

When it was over, he didn't complain or whine. He also didn't do that during the four hole play-off, when his age finally caught up with him and he could not right the ship of tired legs splaying shots left and right. He congratulated the winner (who himself was to be congratulated, not just for winning but also for the gracious way in which he acknowledged having spoiled our whole party). He owned the failure. He accepted the regret.

Before the final round began, his friend Jack Nicklaus had text messaged him to "Win one for the old folks. Make us proud, Make us cry again." And today, Tom Boswell had the best response to that message.

"Don't worry, Tom, you did."