It was 55 degrees early Sunday morning in the Kansas City area. Absurd, I thought, shivering as my dog frolicked after her breakfast. It can’t be this cold in July. It’s impossible.
But … then it occurred to me that maybe this was a sign that the impossible really could happen. Great! We needed such signs in Kansas City on Sunday. Millions of other people wanted what we did, too, but no one wanted it more than us. Tom Watson, age 59, was leading the Open Championship and on the verge of making sports history that would have no equal.
Watson is Kansas City as much as anything ever has been or ever will be Kansas City. I’m a transplanted St. Louisan, but one of the ways I have become at least in part a real Kansas Citian is pride in Watson. In my last six years working for the Kansas City Star, one of my beats was golf, and so I covered Watson in many, many events.
One is supposed to be totally objective in coverage, of course. But … there are circumstances where, really, it’s kind of silly to even pretend to be. Covering Tom Watson in a golf tournament when you work for the Kansas City Star is one of those circumstances.
It’s ludicrous to claim you are not pulling for him. Sure, you’d do it discreetly. You’d clench your fist with every putt that went in, and groan quietly at every miss. The whole of Kansas City and its surrounding region was doing something similar.
He is a revered icon, someone who could have moved to anywhere in the world but stayed in the vicinity of his hometown (he lives on the Kansas side of the state line), and who has done a lot of charity work here. People outside the KC area may not be familiar with the golf exhibition that Watson hosted for 25 years to benefit one of the most important things in our community: Children’s Mercy Hospital.
When Watson decided to commit himself to that charity in 1980, the hospital provided quality services but was unintentionally stark and foreboding. There was nothing to visually comfort frightened, ill children and their agonizing parents. That was one of the easiest things to change – by using bright colors, painting rockets and cars and animals and shooting stars on the walls, the hospital became less scary and more friendly.
Important as those cosmetic alterations were, they were just a fraction of the hospital improvements that the annual golf tournament helped fund over a quarter-century. Watson would always underplay his role, saying all he did was invite other golfers and then play a round of golf along with them. But everyone knew that the reason these star pros – from Jack Nicklaus to Annika Sorenstam – would come to Kansas City was as a favor to Watson.
Children’s Mercy is one of the top pediatric facilities in the nation, and in recent years it’s expanded to another branch in the southern part of the KC metro area, just a few minutes from where I live. Whenever I drive by that hospital at night with its brightly-colored, kid-friendly exterior, I think of how it symbolizes the synergy between one famous man and his community.
When I took over the golf beat at The Star, I was at first a bit nervous. I’d covered a lot of golf before, but not KC’s legend. However, Tom seemed to sense that, and so he did things to put me at ease. The first major tournament I covered that he played in, I was following around inside the ropes -as journalists are allowed to do – because he had a decent-sized gallery around him and I didn’t want to miss anything.
I always feel a little guilty that we get to be inside the ropes when the people who actually pay for tickets have to be outside, even if it’s for the reason that we’re doing our jobs. Like most journalists, I try move very quickly, crouch down and be as unobtrusive as possible.
Anyway, there I was crouched down and peering out very seriously from under my ballcap. And Tom, his group waiting to tee off, looked over, grinned … and lightly squirted his water bottle at me. I laughed; it was such a funny, friendly, welcoming gesture.
I am a diehard Cardinals fan, Tom is a diehard Royals fan. One year before a Cardinals-Royals interleague series, he said he’d bet me a meal at Steak and Shake that the Royals would win the series. I said I was a vegetarian and didn’t go near Steak and Shake. OK, he said, you name the bet. Being a high-roller, I said $5.
Later, after I collected my $5, I said I couldn’t keep taking advantage of a poor Royals fan. (We Cardinal fans can be a bit obnoxious.)
I saw Tom hit amazing shots that made him seem 28 again … but I also saw him fighting a sore hip that he acknowledged kept him awake some nights. We all watched him stand by his dying caddie, Bruce Edwards, and how deeply that affected his outlook on life and gave him another charity to champion: research for ALS.
I asked him many questions, not just about his own performances, but other issues in golf that I was writing about. He was on top of every aspect of the sport.
One thing Tom didn’t do was actually win when I was present. He won several titles when I wasn’t there, and just talked to him by phone. So it became something of a joke that I was a jinx, though it began to feel a little eerie. In particular when Tom led the 2007 U.S. Senior Open – the Champions Tour tour title he wants most – but then blew up on the final eight holes. Afterward, disappointed as he was, Tom still kidded me that maybe it was time for my sports editor to send a different reporter to his tournaments.
The last story I did about Tom was last September, when I wrote about his upcoming hip-replacement surgery. The day it ran in the newspaper, I got the call that my job at The Star had been eliminated.
In December, Tom called to say happy holidays and that he hoped I was doing OK. This is an athlete who’s dealt with hundreds of journalists over the last 30-plus years; I’m no one special at all in that regard. But it was just another gesture of his kindness.
Now … you know why I’m writing about all this, and not about what happened at Turnberry on Sunday. For one thing, I’m sure you already know what happened … for another, I really just don’t want to think about it. I could no more watch the last two holes of that playoff than I could watch the conclusion of “Marley and Me.” And since I wasn’t actually covering the event, I didn’t have to watch the end.
It got much warmer by Sunday afternoon in Kansas City. And when I retreated outside and away from the TV and the agony of the end of the Open Championship, you could have called it a beautiful day. But it didn’t feel that way.
I know that, realistically, it’s as ridiculous that sports can lift us up so high as it is that sports can toss us out of an emotional airplane with no parachute. But that’s what happens, and there’s not a damn thing any of us can do about it.
Except just be grateful about when it does lift us up, which Tom Watson did for 71 holes at a major championship less than two months shy of his 60th birthday. We should realize it’s enough that the impossible almost happened.