Shooting for the moon: 1 landing, 1 near miss

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By Steve Doyle

Remember in It’s A Wonderful Life when George Bailey says he’s going to “lasso the moon”? It gave us a sobriquet for what later became the cliché “reaching for the stars.”

Well, on Monday, we could celebrate two men who did reach for the stars, one of whom did lasso the moon in a manner of speaking and another who just missed.

One gave us a moment to study the past and what it has meant to the present and our future.

The other gave us a moment to study the past and think we were living it yet again.

There is no logical foundation for association between the feats of Neil Armstrong and Tom Watson, yet they are simultaneously iconic and ironic – and -- to be grammatically pure – coincidental.

Armstrong’s first steps on the moon on July 20, 1969 were a giant leap for mankind that existed to be transcended, and to consider Watson’s transcendent attempt Sunday to win the British Open at age 59 took giant leaps of imagination from most of mankind.

Bear with us on this, please, because it’s obvious the absurdity does crawls across that simile like kudzu along a country road. Both men have created special moments in my life, and they deserve appreciation.

When he put boot onto moon dust, Armstrong delivered what John Kennedy promised and what we all doubted could be done. Heck, we still hear from folks who think the whole thing was a fake.

There’s no way three guys orbited the moon, dropped two down for a visit and then retrieved them for a safe ride home. Yet, believe the images or not, we got to see them live on all three networks.

And like the Twin Towers’ falling and Kennedy’s assassination, it’s one of those times you never forget where you were when you saw it.

Maybe you were watching those grainy images in black-and-white in a friend’s den and wishing the picture were better. Maybe when you heard those first unimaginable words – “The Eagle has landed” – you felt the kind of cold chills that are reserved for the most life-changing moments.  Your breath probably became quicker as you waited to see what would happen next.

Of course, in typical NASA fashion, it seemed like hours (and may well have been) before we saw Armstrong start to descend that ladder and put his boot into the sandy lunar soil to take that “one small step for man.”

Didn’t you cheer and applaud and hug somebody? High fiving wasn’t in back then, but you probably swapped some “skin.”

Didn’t it seem more of a miracle than just about anything you had witnessed until that point, surpassing even our basic Biblical definition?

Well, some cousins of those goose bumps emerged again this past weekend, when Watson tried to tame Turnberry and win the British Open golf tournament for a record-tying sixth time at a record-setting old age.

That he failed almost doesn’t matter, because for golf fans of the 1970s and ‘80s, Tom Watson was a man whose accomplishments had been seen and never doubted. He won his share, but he also lost some heartbreakers, and his career sagged a bit earlier than it might have.

Win or lose, we still have the real Watson. He isn’t phony, lost in celebrity or anything more than what he seems on TV: a great golfer and a true gentleman.

I first encountered Watson in 1973 at the Magnolia Classic, which for the unwashed is a PGA Tournament that used to be played in Hattiesburg, Miss., on the same weekend as the Masters. It drew the newcomers and the wannabes and gave them a place to make some money while the recognizables played at Augusta National.

Nobody knew Watson very well, but that weekend we came to understand him. We learned among other things that he attended Stanford, was the only PGA pro to vote for George McGovern in 1972 and that he had a swing that was a thing of beauty. He shot three 68s and a 69,  but he finished third, well behind the forgettable Dwight Nevil and the less forgettable Bert Greene (who played many of Sunday’s final holes in a white T-shirt).

As my old friend Ace Cleveland said when Watson left the press tent that day, “There goes one unhappy fellow. He doesn’t know how he lost.” Yet, it was no surprise to any of those witnesses that we never saw Watson again at the Hattiesburg Country Club. He managed to play his way into the Masters and has won two of them along the way.

Jack Nicklaus was 46 in 1986 when he won the Masters. Julius Boros was 48 in 1969 when he won the U.S. Open. Tom Watson will be 60 in a couple of weeks, and you probably know as well as I that athleticism, stamina and sheer nerve at 60 is about half what it was at 30.

Yet, there was Watson on Sunday, staring down the young guys until the fate of bad bounce and the sort of putt many of us hit over $2 wagers stole away Cinderella on the final hole of regulation.

I imagine Watson paused Monday to reflect on what might have been, but he also may have recalled where he, too, was 40 years ago, when two men landed on the moon and history was written.

Two rare pieces of history crossed our calendar on Monday. One moon walked upon, the other simply tried to lasso it.