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Watching Watson

Sports | The resurgence of a former star falls short, in scores and ratings

Issue: "New faces of New Orleans," Aug. 15, 2009

When Tom Watson, an eight-time major golf champion now on the threshold of his 60th birthday, shot 65 in the opening round of the British Open July 16, longtime fans of the sport could not help but smile. When he followed that with a second-round 70 to share the lead going into the weekend, analysts began to wonder if the aging star might pull off the most unlikely victory in golf history.

But the cement-like surfaces of the Ailsa Championship Course in Turnberry, Scotland, proved a cruel jackal. Watson's second shot on the 18th hole of his final round skidded off the back of the green, yielding a bogey that would cost him the tournament.

Oh, what would have been? Watson would have become the oldest player ever to win a major championship-by 11 years. His victory would have surpassed the 1986 Masters win of Jack Nicklaus for improbability, elevating him yet further into the annals of golf greatness.

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But for all that potential, nobody watched. The final round of the Open Championship drew a stateside television rating of just 3.9, a number less than three non-major PGA tour events this year. Regular season college football games routinely draw much larger audiences.

The reason for the tournament's poor showing: Tiger Woods missed the cut.

While Watson spent his Friday round positioning -himself for a run at history, Woods made a pair of double bogeys to drop from contention and failed to qualify for the weekend of a major for only the second time in his professional career. The groans of ABC -executives echoed for miles around.

Without golf's lone superstar on the course, not even a Rocky Balboa--like surge from an old favorite could keep viewers from tuning out. Watson's charge remained only a golf story, failing to transcend the sport in the way Woods does every time he tees it.

Around the world

Zac Sunderland, 17, became the world's youngest solo circumnavigator

Zac Sunderland, 17, became the world's youngest solo circumnavigator July 16, landing his one-man vessel at Marina del Rey in California after a 13-month voyage that took him across the Pacific Ocean, between New Zealand and Australia, across the Indian Ocean, around the horn of Africa, and up through the Panama Canal.

Hundreds of well-wishers and reporters lined the shore to greet the California native, who grew up in a sailing family. For all the pomp, Sunderland remained his typically casual self upon exiting the 36-foot sailboat: "It's been a crazy 13 months."

Crazy hardly covers it. At one particularly harrowing moment while traveling near Indonesia, Sunderland was stalked by what he believed was a pirate vessel. When his evasive maneuvers failed to shake the tail, he called home on his satellite phone and received instructions from his father to use the gun on board and "shoot to kill." Thankfully, the circumstance never came to that, the mysterious boat veering away as Sunderland prepared to fire warning flares.

Such experiences will make up much of the content for the forthcoming book Sunderland intends to write. Last fall, the remarkable homeschooler told me via satellite phone from the Marshall Islands that among his primary goals for the journey was to inspire. He has. Thousands of admirers followed his progress on the blog he kept along the way. Sunderland believes his accomplishment may well encourage other high-school students to pursue a very different kind of homeschooling-the kind that has little to do with home.

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