The Old Man and the Open

© 2009 Keith McWalter

Over the last weekend, I endured several hours trying to watch the British Open Golf Championship, broadcast via ABC/ESPN and via cable on the Golf Channel. I say “trying” because it was almost impossible to view it as a sporting event and not as a case study in the deep and ultimately pernicious ageism in which our culture in general — and sports media in particular – are steeped.

The problem, for the broadcasters and the viewers, was Tom Watson. He nearly won the darn thing, came within a wimpy putt of winning it, and for the four days in which he hung around the top of the leader board, not a sentence went by without some sports mouthpiece buffoon mentioning his age (59, in case you didn’t know) or, in a clever variation, that he was 2 months shy of 60, or that he would be the oldest man to win a major golf tournament since some Scottish Neanderthal did it during the Pleistocene, or without referring to him repeatedly as a “codger,” or an “old man,” or a “geezer,” all the while affecting astonishment that he was ambulatory, let alone in contention to win a major tournament.

Now Tom Watson, it turns out, is almost exactly my age, and the tournament was being held in my ancestral homeland, Scotland, so I was taking all this more than a little personally. I actually think I look considerably younger than Tom, who, having spent his life in a profession that requires continual exposure to a lot of UV rays, looked a bit leathernecked, wrinkly and sunspotted, and who, whether striding down a fairway or kicking back in an interview, seemed to be doing a dead-on bobble-headed imitation of a spry Ronald Reagan, permanent grin and all. He wasn’t giving 59 year olds a big boost in public perception about what a guy of that age looks like (though I think he made a lot of us feel better about our next trip to the dermatologist). But this wasn’t about looks; this was a damn golf tournament, and in that department he was an inspiration and a lesson to young and old.

So why not let it go at that? Why did his performance have to be measured almost exclusively in terms of his age? We were told repeatedly how amazing it was that “at his age,” he could “get parallel” (whatever that is – I think it has something to do with the club in relation to the ground on a backswing), how remarkable that he still had such flexibility and strength “at his age,” that a certain lie would be more difficult for a player “of his age,” and so on and so on. The announcing idiots had great fun subtracting one two-digit number from another in order to emphasize (as though this added anything!) the difference between Tom’s age and that of, say, a 22 year-old Brit who came in fourth. There was even an unforgettably irrelevant graphic portraying the names of legends of other sports who shared Tom Watson’s age (59, so you don’t forget), and the last time (invariably decades ago) they did anything of the least significance in their sport. What this proved, other than that golf is a physically more forgiving game than many (duh!), I have no idea, yet it was presented as though the Rosetta Stone had recently been decoded.

In point of fact the only thing I found remarkable about Watson’s performance was the same thing I would have found remarkable had Tiger Woods been in contention – namely, that he was beating a lot of other really good professional golfers. I know a lot of men of my and Tom’s age who do a lot of things a heck of a lot more strenuous than a few rounds of golf, who do them well and routinely, and think nothing of it. Many men of my and Tom Watson’s age are in the best physical shape of their lives, and enjoying it more to boot. There seems to be no good reason, in fact, why there couldn’t be proportionally as many men over 50 as under 50 in a given professional golf tournament, except for the fact that more of the over-50 guys have made enough money that they don’t have to show up anymore.

So when a Tom Watson wows the thirtysomething blatherers out of their headsets, pardon us if we’re not so amazed. What’s amazing is their naivete and lack of life experience. What’s amazing is their boorish and unrestrained prejudice about age and aging. What’s amazing is their sexism, too: never in million years would a woman over the age of 30 of any profession have had her age repeated on-air as frequently as Tom Watson’s was in the last four days, partly because it would have been rightly perceived as uncouth in the extreme, politically incorrect, and (correctly) irrelevant.

Sports media might better spend their time expressing amazement not at how old a player can be and still be competitive, but how young they are when so many of them quit, through burn-out, injury, stupid parents, or just plain lack of commitment to and respect for their sport. That last also comes with age.

It was Tom Watson’s strength, in fact, that proved his undoing in the end. He overshot the 18th green in the final regulation approach, and wildly overshot the hole on his return putt. That was the end. But perhaps that was better than the patronizing and unrelenting clamor over his age that we all would have been subjected to had his last putt gone in.

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