Regrets? Frank Sinatra sang that he had a few but then again, too few to mention.
What about golf in the 2000s? I’ve had a few, but not too few to mention. Here is my list of the tournaments that would have been improved with different endings – from my point of view. Writers root for the best stories to tell, which is their way of rooting for themselves, really. I liked the tales of all of these major champions, but from a selfish editing standpoint, some could’ve been better.
Which 21st-century tournament endings would you alter? Your list will be different than mine, I should mention. I regret that, too, but I did what I had to do … and saw it through without exemption.
Turnberry, 2009: What if Greg Norman birdied that final hole in the 1986 Masters and denied Jack Nicklaus the defining moment of his career? That’s what the 2009 British Open felt like when Stewart Cink won the playoff over Tom Watson, who was two months shy of turning 60 and going for a record-tying sixth Open title. I like Cink a lot. I like the way he approaches the game and life, and I consider him to be a true role model. But even he knows that his Cinderella story wasn’t the one wanted by Scottish fans. Watson would have been the oldest major champion by a mile, and this major farewell on the course where he beat Nicklaus in 1977’s “Duel in the Sun,” by the way, would have rivaled Nicklaus’ ’86 curtain call. Instead, there was an eerie silence as disappointed spectators filed out. “Hey, this ain’t a funeral,” Watson joked to writers afterward as he tried to lighten the mood. But he also conceded that “it tears at your gut.” Watson is such a competitor, I wonder whether he has gone a day without thinking about this Open. A lot of people would change that result if they could.
Shinnecock Hills, 2004: I don’t remember a more electric atmosphere than this U.S. Open final round. There was the screwup with the greens – some, such as the par-3 seventh, were unplayably firm and fast – and I still don’t know whether it was the fault of the USGA or a rogue greenskeeper. There were the scores. The average score was 78, and 28 players didn’t break 80. And there was Phil Mickelson, finally having his Arnold Palmer moment as he charged up the leaderboard in front of his most vocal supporters, New Yorkers who’d jumped on his bandwagon two years earlier at Bethpage partly out of sympathy because he was still major-less. Mickelson was three shots behind Retief Goosen with six to play. Mickelson birdied 13, lipped out for birdie at 14, then birdied the next two holes to take a one-shot lead while his gallery turned into the second coming of Arnie’s Army. Goosen had 11 one-putt greens on the last day, including the most important, one for par at 17 after he’d hit into a bunker. Mickelson found the bunker at the par 3, too, splashed it out above the hole and three-putted for double bogey. The air came out of the crowd faster than the Hindenburg came down. If Mickelson, who already had won the ’04 Masters, would have parred the 17th and won at Shinnecock Hills, it would have been the defining moment of his career to this day.
The Old Course, 2015: Most golf observers never expected anyone could or would make a run at the Grand Slam. Then Tiger Woods won four majors in a row in 2000-01, proving that the impossible was possible. Still, no one believed that anyone except Woods could win a Grand Slam. Then came Jordan Spieth. He won the Masters, almost kicked away a weird U.S. Open but won it when Dustin Johnson three-putted the final green at Chambers Bay and then looked for all the world like the British Open champ when he rolled in a clutch 30-foot birdie putt at St. Andrews’ 16th in the final round. What a summer. Successive yank-left drives led to a bogey-par finish, however, that kept Spieth out of a playoff. A par-birdie finish would have won it, and then we could have watched the Duel for the Cheese or whatever name the PGA Championship at Wisconsin’s Whistling Straits would have been dubbed. Jason Day shot a record 20 under par to win. If Spieth had been playing for the Slam, would the result have been any different? We’ll never know.
Royal Lytham & St. Annes, 2012: This is not why I’d make Adam Scott the British Open champion, but for purposes of full disclosure, I’ll tell this part first. A month before the Open, I had a dream in which Scott won the Claret Jug. I rarely remember dreams, and I rarely, if ever, have a dream involving golf. I mentioned the dream on Golf.com, and a reader asked if I intended to place a bet. No, I said. He replied that he dreamed one year that Padraig Harrington won the Open and that he didn’t get a bet down, but after Harrington did win, he’d been kicking himself ever since. Good point. I placed a $200 wager, possibly legally, on Scott at 27-1 odds. So, I stood to win $5,400 – nice but not life-changing. I was more excited about the possibility of having dreamed the winner in advance, honestly, than about my actual winnings. Maybe I could’ve become The Pittsburgh Medium. Another factor was that Scott is such a nice, pleasant man. He always had been almost universally great to the media, but so had the man who ended up beating him, Ernie Els, one of the writers’ all-time favorites. Plus, nobody wants to see a golfer bogey the last four holes to lose the Open. Nobody likes sad endings. Maybe it worked out better because the next spring, Scott ended up being the first Australian to win a Masters, which might have been even bigger than if he’d won the Open.
Augusta National, 2009: Kentucky native Kenny Perry was another of the game’s aw-shucks nice guys. At the ’09 Masters, he played the golf of his life and was poised to win a green jacket until the last two holes. He skulled a chip at 17 and made bogey, then hit driver – not 3-wood! – into the fairway bunker and bogeyed 18, too. He missed the green with a short iron on the first playoff hole and eventually lost to the humorless Angel Cabrera. Perry was tearful in a post-round interview. At 48, he would have eclipsed Nicklaus as the oldest Masters champion. A Perry victory would’ve been a feel-good story. But it, like the other feel-good endings listed, didn’t happen. Golf is a game filled with regrets. Sometimes, I'm sure Sinatra would have agreed, they're too big not to mention.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle