On 19 July 2009, Tom Watson stood on the 18th tee at Turnberry and very politely raged against the dying of his golfing light. He was a time traveller from the 1970s, a spectre who had materialised to carve long irons into the wind and find bump and run lines invisible to other players. Having birdied the long 17th, a par 4 on the final hole would crown 59-year-old Watson as the oldest major champion by over a decade, and make Jack Nicklaus's mid-80s Masters' win at the age of 46 seem like the achievement of a callow youth.
In the age of Tiger, when rippling muscles and hours in the gym had become the golfing norm, the world's best players trailed a slight figure with a hip replacement who was only a few months short of his 60th birthday. By sitting atop the leader board, Watson validated every weekend warrior's belief that precision golf and course management could still compete against the blunt instruments of length and power.
The sporting script writers had done their job exceptionally well that week. Watson is as close to an honorary Scotsman as you can get, having won four of his five Opens on Scottish links. Over 30 years before, he had stood on the exact same 18th tee alongside Jack Nicklaus with a one iron in his hand at the climax of their famous 'Duel in the Sun.' That day in 1977, Watson birdied the last to win what is still considered the best head-to-head battle in the history of golf. The sense of having fallen into a time warp was heightened by the fact that the 18th hole he was about play in 2009 had been renamed from 'Ailsa Hame' to 'Duel in the Sun' in 2003 in their joint honour.
Despite the combined psychic energy of the entire golfing world willing him on, Watson failed that afternoon by about four degrees. Rather than trusting his first instinct and hitting his nine iron from the fairway, he instead reached for his eight and overshot the green. The resulting bogey led to a four-hole play-off, and as the shadows began to lengthen, you could also see Watson's competitive edge evaporate, as whatever elixir of youth had powered him through the prior four rounds wore off. As he said of the play-off afterwards, 'my legs didn't work.' Rather than an improbable and historic victory, the claret jug went instead to journeyman Stewart Cink; a win that probably had zero emotional resonance for anyone outside Cink's immediate family.
For American snowboarder Shaun White, success or failure in Pyeongchang was also a matter of a few degrees. Just as at Turnberry, the drama couldn't have been engineered any better. Standing at the top of the halfpipe for the final run of the competition, White needed something special to win and bounce back from his disappointing fourth place at the Sochi games. At 31, he was the old man trailing a Japanese teenager. But he delivered, pulling his body through four full rotations, nailing a landing on a steep incline, and then doing it three more times in the next 30 seconds for a valedictory third gold medal. I hadn't grown up watching White as I had with Watson. Indeed, the evidence suggests that for much of his life Shaun White has been a self-absorbed, egotistical brat, with more than a whiff of misogyny about him. Yet I was still rooting for him.
There's excitement when you see break-out stars like 17-year-old American snowboarder Chloe Kim win in Pyeongchang or watch Boris Becker swagger out of nowhere to win Wimbledon at the same age, but the reality is that as we age, we typically want the old guys to win. We've all had the feeling that we're too old, too fat, too slow, or too tired to be successful again, whether the field is athletic, academic, or business. Whether we're competing at the Olympic, varsity, or just local playground level, we know that we'll never get to rely on the energy of youth again, so we want to see cunning, guile, and the wisdom that comes from experience triumph.
Ultimately, we desperately want to believe that focus, discipline, and enough desire can still compensate for our own mental or physical frailties.
So, if you're a tennis fan, the late-career renaissance of Roger Federer has been an unexpected gift. Regaining the no.1 ranking at the age of 36, Federer is on track to match the achievement of Ken Rosewall, who won the 1972 Australian Open at the age of 37. After a drought of five years, Federer has refined his game and won three grand slam titles in the last 12 months, using angles and his uncanny sense of positioning to overcome bigger, faster, and much, much younger opponents. Unlike Watson, for Federer the last year hasn't been a nostalgic flash in the pan, but instead an Indian summer of renewed dominance.
Sporting fairy tales don't always have happy endings. I'm just old enough to remember 1974's Rumble in the Jungle, with Muhammad Ali coming off the ropes in Kinshasa to topple the unbeaten – and assumed unbeatable – George Foreman and reclaim the heavyweight title at age 32. But my clearer memory is of Ali not knowing when to quit, and ending up as a punching bag for Larry Holmes and other boxers on the way up. For every Watson, White, and Federer, there's also a George Best playing for Hibs in the early 1980s. There were fleeting glimpses of a still dazzling football talent, but mostly he was just grinding out a pay check to fend off the taxman between benders.
Psychologists tell us that the catalyst for a middle-age crisis is often the recognition that there is more behind you than in front. That you have crested the hill and can see the long downslope of loss and limitation in front of you. Rather than an abundance of opportunity, the window narrows, and the opportunities to excel and make an enduring mark become fewer and fewer. With age it becomes harder to fool yourself, and instead we recognise the paths we'll never walk and the lives we'll never lead. But that sense of loss can be ameliorated to some degree by living vicariously through heroes of our own vintage, and that is why I reflexively root for the old guys – especially those who have been down and out before making it back to the top.
Despite it being five years since Tiger Woods won a golf tournament, a full decade since his last major championship, and an accumulating list of questionable personal choices, his appearance on recent leader boards has turbocharged golf's TV ratings because of the promise of redemption. If Tom Watson had reached for his nine rather than his eight that summer afternoon, it would have rewritten the record books but also spurred a whole generation of middle-aged men to practise a little harder and believe that, in whatever they were doing, maybe they had one last win left in them.
Ultimately, in a phrase beloved of American sportscasters, 'Father Time will remain undefeated,' but whether I like them or not, for my own selfish reasons, I'm going to keep rooting for those who can make the game competitive deep into the second half.