- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On the same weekend 67-year-old Paul McCartney played to a packed house at the Mets’ new ballpark, Tom Watson, two months shy of 60, darn near won the British Open. And with all due respect to Sir Paul, Our Tom made the sweeter music.

After all, there will be other concerts for McCartney; he’ll be taking curtain calls until his vocal chords give out. But what we saw at Turnberry, to our disbelieving eyes, will likely be Watson’s final encore, his last appearance on a major stage. Let the record show he hit every note just right… until, that is, his off-key 8-foot putt on the 72nd hole with the championship in reach.

Still, it was fun while it lasted, almost hallucinogenic - especially if you’re a Fan of a Certain Age. Those of us who grew up in a different era, the one before titanium shafts and big-head drivers, live for these moments, these all-too-rare instances when the past collides with the present. Watson, in our minds, wasn’t just playing for himself; he was playing for an entire generation of athletes - in golf, football, baseball, what have you - whose accomplishments are being buried by the sands of time.

Each year, more names from Way Back When disappear from the record books - and are replaced by new names, more recognizable names, living names. Sometimes these new names clearly outperform their predecessors, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re merely the beneficiaries of rule changes… or longer seasons… or better equipment… or surgical advancements… or improved training methods… or performance-enhancing drugs.

But when a golfer from the Lost World of the ‘70s (and early ‘80s) comes within a blink of capturing the claret jug in 2009, well, it makes you think real hard about this whole athletes-getting-better business. I don’t dispute the notion that each generation of athletes stands on the shoulders of the generation before it; but as Watson showed, it’s equally true that certain athletes can stand shoulder to shoulder with the athletes of any generation.

It’s easy to forget that in these bigger, faster, stronger times we live in. Sports leagues are masters at creating what I like to call “the illusion of progress” - to make it easier, presumably, to jack up ticket prices. And so Randy Moss, who caught 23 touchdown passes in 16 games in 2007, is listed first in the NFL record book. Jerry Rice, who caught 22 in 12 games in 1987, is listed second.

That doesn’t mean we Baby Boomers - and those who preceded us - are blind to the wonders of LeBron James, Alex Ovechkin, Albert Pujols and Adrian Peterson. (Looking at sports through the prism of the past need not cause cataracts.) It just means we’re more skeptical of adjectives ending in “-est” - “greatest” most of all.

When Sports Illustrated features Jim Brown on its cover in 1983 and playfully suggests he might make a comeback at 47 - to keep Franco Harris from breaking his career rushing mark - we’re disappointed when he doesn’t. We also smile as we read this comment of Brown’s in the magazine: “Where are the heroes, the gladiators? … Today’s heroes are insulated by their money. … Where has the danger in the game gone? I can’t accept quarterbacks sliding and running backs running out of bounds.

“Ever since the merger in 1966 and the creation of the Super Bowl, the owners have been more concerned with the ratings than the level of the game. Coaches put up with players waving into TV cameras, giving high fives and spiking the ball. That sells. The ‘Monday Night Football’ broadcasters have become bigger than the game. Who is kidding whom?”

Jim was wise, of course, not to disturb his legend. Even a running back for the ages would have a hard time breaking a tackle in his late 40s. In fact, retired “heroes” and “gladiators” in most sports are usually better off staying that way, osteopathically speaking.

But golf is different. Golf is a game that - because it doesn’t involve 250-pound linebackers, 6-10 small forwards or 100 mph fastballs - allows young to compete against old on fairly level ground. In golf, 53-year-old Greg Norman can lead the British Open after 63 holes - and the very next year, Tom Watson can lead it, all by his 59-year-old self, after 71 3/4 holes.

Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away at Citi Field, Paul McCartney can sing “Yesterday” - and the crowd can go wild.

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