What Tom Watson Can Teach The Modern Day Professional Athlete

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistJuly 22, 2009

TURNBERRY, SCOTLAND - JULY 19:  Stewart Cink (L) of USA looks at the Claret Jug with Tom Watson of USA after his victory in a play off following the final round of the 138th Open Championship on the Ailsa Course, Turnberry Golf Club on July 19, 2009 in Turnberry, Scotland.  (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

How are you meant to teach your children about good sportsmanship when they turn on the television every Sunday and see NFL players engaging in ridiculous, taunting celebrations after every single play?

How are you meant to teach your children about refraining from arguing with their coaches and the refs when every time they watch an NBA basketball game they see players whining to the refs like spoiled 5-year-olds after every single posession?

How are you meant to teach your kids about not cursing and slamming down their clubs on the golf course when they turn on the television and watch the best players in the world do just that at the British Open?

How are you meant to teach you children about taking responsibility for their actions when every press conference they see on ESPN contains yet another athlete blaming everyone and everything else other than themselves for their poor performance?  

How are you meant to teach your children about being a team player when they constantly watch baseball players skip practice and turn their backs on their teams because they are being paid $20 million instead of the $22 million they wanted?

As unfortunate as it is to say, this is the modern day professional athlete. 

To paint every athlete with that brush would be grossly unfair, but let’s just say that a very large majority of modern day athletes can be painted with this brush from head-to-toe.

Tom Watson’s improbable run last week at the British Open was truly amazing for two reasons.

First, and foremost, was the fact that he was nearly 60 years old.  60 year olds are simply not meant to win or even contend at the British Open.

Second, this is one of very few occasions in the history of sports where an athlete transcended a generational gap.

Tom Watson is not supposed to contend at a major championship that contains Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, Rory McIlroy and Paul Casey in the field.

Tom Watson won majors during the era of Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Larry Nelson and Seve Ballesteros.

A penguin waddling around the Arizona desert would have been less out of place than Tom Watson was standing on the tee box of the 72nd hole while holding a one-stroke lead.

Ladbrokes set the odds of Watson winning the 2009 British Open at 1,000-to-1 prior to the start of the tournament.

We always hear and read about how athletes from earlier generations were more graceful in defeat, were more courteous, were more engaging with the fans, were more honest and were more apt to take responsibility for their failures.

Now, as if it were some kind of scientific experiment, we were able to look through the glass and see an athlete from yesteryear, Tom Watson, compete in the modern day sports arena.

So, were athletes from previous generations all they were cracked up to be?  

Well, if even half of them were anything at all like Tom Watson, the answer would be a resounding YES.

The way Watson handled himself in the face of what would have to be one of the toughest defeats of his career is something you simply don’t see today.

Watson didn’t blame the golf gods when his approach shot on the 72nd hole hit the green and took off as if it had just landed on a spring board.

Watson didn’t sit in the interview room and blame the strong cross winds for his errant shots in the playoff.

Heck, he didn’t even bring up the most legitimate excuse of all time– that’s he’s 60 years old and simply didn’t have much left in the tank during the playoff with Stewart Cink.

Nope, Watson was honest and shouldered all of the blame for not closing out the tournament when he had the chance.

Following his dreadful performance against Cink in the 4-hole playoff, Watson was graceful in defeat and could be seen smiling with his arm around Cink as the two of them looked at the names engraved on the Claret Jug.

Watson didn’t decline to speak with the press after the tournament and he didn’t sit in the interview room pouting and making excuses. He was courteous and honest.

Watson spoke about how this loss would rip at his gut just as all the others had during his career.

He took the blame for hitting an 8-iron over the green on the 72nd hole when a 9-iron would have clearly been the correct club.

Even when a reporter brought up the fact that he looked tired during the 4-hole playoff, Watson never once pointed to his age as a reason why he played poorly.

After he made all the rounds with the media, Watson could be seen signing every autograph asked of him as he left the clubhouse at Turnberry and as he walked into the Turnberry hotel where he was staying for the week.

Even as he was getting into the car that was there to take him from the clubhouse to the hotel, Watson got back out because he saw one last child that he had not yet signed an autograph for.

Granted, Watson does not have to deal with the same media circus that modern day athletes have to deal with day-in and day-out.

Perhaps it’s easier to deal with this sort of thing for one week, knowing that it will be over and done with and you will return to your normal life the following week.

But, the way in which Watson handled himself both on and off the golf course all week at the British Open is not something that you often see from modern day athletes.

Of course, most children don’t want to look up to a 60-year-old golfer as a role model.  They are more interested in the flashy, larger than life characters that grace the football fields, baseball fields and basketball courts.  

But, if you really want to teach your children about sportsmanship, honesty and taking responsibility for their actions, get yourself a copy of the 2009 British Open and use Tom Watson as your teaching tool.

Younger generations of sports fans typically roll their eyes when the older folks talk about how the ‘golden era’ of sports is over.

But, as is so often the case, perhaps the ‘older folks’ are correct.

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