Tom Watson’s golfing generation game

In the end the fairytale didn’t quite come true but 59 year-old Tom Watson was within one putt of winning golf’s Open Championship today at Turnberry, 26 years after his last major win.

With his remarkable performance Watson gave sports fans a rare opportunity to answer the often posed question about how the champions of yesteryear would fare in modern sport. The answer: given the right equipment and preparation, great champions of previous generations would indeed compete with the best today. Watson, who had a hip replacement operation last year, showed consummate skill to finish second in a field including virtually all of the best golfers in the world.

The comparison doesn’t work across all sports. Rugby players and rowers, for example, are physically much bigger than their forebears. In athletics and other timed or measured sports the medal-winning performances nowadays tend to be significantly better than they were 50 years ago (but not necessarily superior to those of 20 or 30 years ago, which may have been drug-enhanced). Many would argue that the likes of Jesse Owens, born in 1913, could have challenged the times set by Usain Bolt in the 100m and 200m if he had been born 70 years later and had access to modern training methods. We will never know.

Was Sachin Tendulkar at his best as good as Don Bradman? How would Pele have fared in the Premier League? These questions are unanswerable, although that won’t stop them being asked. Would Tom Watson have beaten Tiger Woods? Well, for one week yes he did. 

We are sure to hear a lot more about Tom Watson and his replacement hip in the coming days. In the UK, the US and other golf markets expect to see plenty of opinion columns, tactical adverts and jokes doing the rounds.

The man himself must be bitterly disappointed to have come so close and missed out. The type of character who would be satisfied with second place would not be the ferocious competitor who would achieve it. Nevertheless, he can console himself with £450,000 in prize money and the knowledge that his performance has entered the record books and inspired millions.

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