Monday, July 20, 2009

Biasness of Reporting, Watson’s Historic Run Didn’t Have the Ending it Deserved

When I taught a journalism class at Duke years ago, the first question I would ask the students was this: What’s the definition of objective reporting?

After they gave me various answers, I would tell them the truth: there’s no such thing. Everyone has biases. Just because you sign on to work in journalism doesn’t mean you sign off on being a human being. The key is understanding your biases and trying to be fair to everyone, regardless of how you feel about them.

Sunday was one of those days when it was impossible for me to be even close to un-biased. Watching Tom Watson play the last round of The British Open, I couldn’t sit still. I paced up and down for a while; I walked in and out of the room; I changed seats based on how well he was playing.

I know I wasn’t alone. The story Watson was trying to write, a 59-year-old winning a major title TWENTY-SIX years after his last one, was one of those Hollywood would have trouble believing. Not only that, but he was doing at Turnberry, site of his greatest victory—the 1977 Duel in the Sun with Jack Nicklaus—and I think it is fair to say millions of people were hanging on for dear life as he came down the stretch.

Doing what I do, there are occasions when a sports event becomes personal for me. When you spend time with people the way I do, especially on book research, you can’t help but get caught up in their lives. I pulled like crazy for the Indiana basketball team in 1986, not because it was going to help the book to have the Hoosiers win—they lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament that year and the book still did pretty well—but because I came to know and like everyone connected with the program so well.

When I was at PGA Tour qualifying school in 1993, following my small cadre of q-school guys while researching, “A Good Walk Spoiled,” I lived and died on every shot they hit. The toughest book for me might have been, “A Civil War.” As the Army-Navy game swung back and forth that year I knew that, regardless of who won, I was going to feel crushed for the losers.

But there was no book that drained me emotionally the way, “Caddy For Life,” did. That book came about because of my friendship with Bruce Edwards, who was Watson’s caddy and best friend dating back to 1973 when they were both kids starting out on the tour. Bruce was the first person I ever interviewed while covering golf (in 1981) and we became instant friends. When he was diagnosed with ALS in 2003 and asked me to write a book about his life and his impending death, there was no way I could say no—even though, selfishly, I cringed at the idea of watching Bruce die from up close.

I’ve said often that doing the book was a gift because, painful as it was, it taught me so much about dealing with REAL adversity and about friendship and loyalty. I had always had a good relationship with Watson through the years though certainly not a close one. ‘Caddy For Life,’ changed that and, since Bruce’s death in 2004 we have worked closely trying to build the Bruce Edwards Foundation, which raises money for ALS research.

That’s why Sunday was so personal for me. Neil Oxman, a close friend of Bruce’s, who is a big-time political consultant in real life, caddies for Tom in odd-numbered (non-election) years in part because he enjoys it, in part because he knows Tom feels more comfortable with Bruce’s old pal walking next to him.

All weekend, I kept telling myself, ‘this can’t happen, don’t get your hopes up.’ But then it was Sunday and Tom was hanging in and hanging in and then he birdied the 17th hole while Lee Westwood was fading and all he needed was a par at the 18th to win and I was holding my breath, hearing Bruce’s voice in my head, saying, “I told you he could do it!” and there were tears in my eyes after he hit a perfect tee shot at the 18th.

At that moment, I DID think he was going to do it. Except the Golf Gods screwed it up. Tom hit a perfect eight iron second shot but it bounced hard, too hard, and went through the green. We all saw the rest: an uphill putt from the fringe that went to far, a badly decelerated putt for par that wasn’t close. The playoff with Stewart Cink was a Bataan Death March. Tom had nothing left.

Neither did I. The phone kept ringing, I didn’t answer. At that moment I just couldn’t talk to anyone. I saw the look on Tom’s face and knew how crushed he was and I just felt sad.

That’s no knock on Cink, who is a good player and a better person. He made a clutch birdie on the 18th when he had to and played flawlessly in the playoff. He’s a deserving champion.

But it was SO close. One more reasonable bounce—not even a good one—and Watson would have had one of the most historic wins in the history of sports. He would have been 11 years older than any other major champion and 13 years older than Old Tom Morris was in 1867 (that’s not a typo) when he became the oldest British Open champion.

I take solace in this. Nothing can change the amazing performance Tom put on for four days. And, nothing can change the grace with which he handled his defeat. There’s a certain best player in the world who could learn a lot from watching the way Watson handles bad shots and bad bounces and a crushing defeat.

I remember asking Bruce early on why he liked working for Watson so much—beyond the fact that he was the No. 1 player in the world. “You will never see him moan about a bad shot,” Bruce said. “He never complains about the wins or a spike mark or a bad bounce. He never blames me when something goes wrong. Never. He hits it, finds it and hits it again. He gets angry but only with himself. There’s no other player I’ve seen like that.”

We saw it again on Sunday. No whining, no club-pounding. He kept his sense of humor. “Hey guys this isn’t a funeral you know,” he said as the media walked very quietly into the interview room when it was over.

“It would have been a hell of a story wouldn’t it?” he said, forcing a smile. “Yeah, it would have been a hell of a story.”

Actually, it WAS a hell of a story. It just didn’t have the ending it deserved.


Sean said...

Well said, John. And I love your money quote: "And, nothing can change the grace with which he handled his defeat. There’s a certain best player in the world who could learn a lot from watching the way Watson handles bad shots and bad bounces and a crushing defeat."

So very true.

I just found your blog a few weeks ago and enjoy your updates. Thanks very much. And best wishes for a speedy and complete recovery.

TJ said...

Good to hear how reporters have biases, superstitions and nervousness like us normal fans have. Sitting in the chair watching was nerve-wracking, and we all tried to will Watson to victory. He sounds like he is gentlemanly as he comes across as being.

Bruce said...

I have been a big fan of Tom Watson, in part because we share the same birthyear, 1949, in part because what I have seen on television over the years, and in part because of the things I have read about him in your golf books.

For some reason, I just never thought yesterday he would win at the end. (I generally had the same feeling I had when watching the Roddick-Federer match that Andy/Tom were going down to heroic defeat). And for some reason, I kept flashing upon the image of a movie I had seen as a kid, Spencer Tracy in Hemmingway's "Old Man and the Sea", trying to get the giant fish home, with the sharks eating at it, so by the time he got to port, there was nothing left.

Watson showed his grace Sunday after it was over. I thought he really showed his strength of character and competitiveness Friday when after four bogies on the front nine, he made them all up. He could have easily fallen into the trap that he had his one day in the sun, but while Tiger Woods was playing himself out of the tournament, Watson was playing himself back into the lead.

Feinstein shines in Saskatoon said...

Tom Watson showed all of us that golf is a gentelmens game and if you carry yourself like one you will be rewarded but that is also isn't fair sometimes. Watson's greatness on the course is well documented and also off the course but adversity shows us the true test of a person's character. Tom's grace in defeat with dealing with the media after the playoff was amazing. Here's hoping we see Tom in the mix at future Opens as he is a true role model for golfers of all generations