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Southwords

The One That Got Away

Well, maybe it was more than one

By Jim Moriarty

Some folks are naturally blessed with a singing voice that could charm the stars out of the sky. Others are granted the inexplicable gift of mathematical brilliance or the ability to learn languages as effortlessly as drawing a warm bath. I, on the other hand, have been endowed with a singular knack for the big mistake. The cosmic screwup.

One might suppose that, over the course of time, this penchant for the monumental blunder would be cause for concern. Counseling at the very least, if not jail time. But, like bunions or getting the wrong order at the drive-thru, one learns to live with it. I like to think of these gaffes as the building blocks of my children’s future eulogies, should the worst happen to me — which seems, for the reason listed above plus the usual one, like a foregone conclusion.

Though picking one of my personal oopses over another is a daunting task, now that major championship golf has come to Pinehurst and gone toddling off toward Scotland, I’m forced to recall one such staggering miscue from my rather extensive list. It happened exactly 40 years ago this month, so you can see I’ve been at this thing for a very long time indeed.

I had just struck out on my own, hoping to find contentment and riches as a freelance writer and photographer equipped with everything I needed except talent, experience and a Will Work for Food sign hand-painted on a piece of torn cardboard. As luck would have it, that year — 1984 — the Open Championship was being held in St. Andrews at the Old Course. Somehow I managed to talk the USGA’s magazine into allowing me to take pictures for them, and so off I went with the War Department at my side as a camera sherpa/assistant, and because July is also her birthday month.

Early in the week we went for a walkabout to familiarize ourselves with the old links, and we came upon Tom Watson playing St. Andrews’ 17th, the Road Hole. Watson, a five-time winner of the Open Championship, had claimed the claret jug two years in a row. Little did we know he’d already done all the winning of major championships he was going to do. As part of his practice on 17, Tom threw a few balls down on the little patch of grass between the gravel road and the stone wall behind the green. We watched as he practiced caroming the ball off the wall and back onto the green, should he find himself in that predicament during play.

Sure enough, coming down the stretch on Sunday, Seve Ballesteros and Watson were tied with two holes to play. Seve, playing with Bernhard Langer, was in the twosome in front of Watson, who was playing alongside Ian Baker-Finch. As Seve parred the Road Hole, Watson flirted with the out of bounds on his tee shot and then hit a 2-iron over the 17th green, close to the stone wall.

Ballesteros was heading down the short 18th when Watson’s ball cozied up to the wall and the smart money — and the smart photographers — rushed down the home hole with him. In those days, photographers were allowed to walk inside the wall behind the 17th green, and I decided, if Watson was to bank the ball off the wall, save his par and go on to win a third straight Open Championship, I wanted a picture of it. It was like betting on a unicorn in the Kentucky Derby.

There was one other problem. I’m a skosh under 6 feet and the stone wall is roughly shoulder height to me. The War Department and I needed to get on the other side of it to take Tom’s picture, so I put all the cameras and lenses on the ground and tossed my wife over the wall like I was throwing an anchor overboard. Happy birthday, honey. I climbed over after her and positioned myself to shoot Watson face-on if he did, indeed, bump his ball into the wall. But he didn’t. As a precaution, I’d given the War Department a camera, which she used to take Tom’s picture. It ran in the USGA’s magazine with my photo credit — and me in the background.

Meanwhile, up ahead on the 18th green, Seve made a birdie three and pumped his fist to the north, to the south, to the east and to the west. It was such an iconic photograph it would become his personal symbol.

I got to watch it from halfway down the 18th. God bless her, the War Department didn’t even shake her head or lift her eyes skyward. At least not that I saw.  PS

Jim Moriarty is the Editor of PineStraw and can be reached at
jjmpinestraw@gmail.com.