The Struggles of 1998 Open Runner Up Brian Watts
WHEN The Open Championship was played at Royal Birkdale in 1998 the main headlines were written by 17-year-old Justin Rose, who holed his approach at the final hole for a birdie that allowed him to finish in a tie for fourth place. It is an enduring memory of a great week on the Lancashire coast.
You may remember, too, that the tournament itself was won by Mark O'Meara, of the United States, who had also finished first at The Masters that year. O'Meara won after a playoff, but can you remember who finished second? His name was Brian Watts and he was a relative unknown outside of Japan, where he had enjoyed considerable success.
He had been a decent college player, finishing top of the pile in the 1987 NCAA championship, and turned professional with high expectations but found it all something of a struggle. It took him four years before he earned his PGA Tour card in 1991, but he lasted only one season before losing his playing rights.
After a couple of failed attempts to regain his card at qualifying school, Watts headed off to the land of the rising sun, where his fortunes were transformed. He won 12 times from 1994-98 and arrived at Birkdale with high hopes. Nevertheless, it was a huge surprise when he led after both 36 and 54 holes. He struggled to keep pace with O'Meara in the final round before holing a 25-foot birdie on the 71st green to draw level with the American.
He bunkered his approach to the final green and was left with a horrible lie, forcing him to play his recovery shot with one leg outside the sand. He hit a brilliant shot that almost found the bottom of the hole but was forced to settle for a par and a tie with O'Meara. Next came a four-hole playoff. O'Meara birdied the first and went on to lift the Claret Jug.
His second-place finish ensured that Watts had regained his PGA Tour card for 1999, during which he enjoyed 11 top-25 finishes, including a tie for third at the Byron Nelson Championship. By the end of the year he was in the top 20 in the world rankings. It seemed that he had finally arrived, but it turned out to be a false dawn.
Watts began to suffer suffer chronic back pain towards the end of 1999 and the following year he developed hip problems and he duly lost his playing rights once again. He regained his card in 2002, but was unable to shake off his hip injury and his game suffered once again.
In 2006 he was diagnosed with two herniated discs in his lower back and a meniscus tear in his left knee, which was a result of overcompensating for the hip problem.
Now aged 51, Watts has not played on the PGA Tour since 2005 and played his last round of competitive golf in 2011 before admitting that he could never recover the level of fitness required to compete at the highest level. He now works as a marketing manager for a high-tech company, Sensogram Technologies.
“My focus these days is on my three kids,” he said. “It was really much needed because I missed a lot of time when I was in Japan. Golfers by nature are very selfish people because of the time we need to practice and play and we have to be selfish at times, by nature.”
Watts had his left hip replaced in 2013, hoping that he might be able to play on the Champions Tour when he turned 50. “It was the same doctor who did Tom Watson’s hip replacement and the recovery went great. Then I broke two fingers on my hand two different times. It was just a freak thing, but it happened twice and really set me back,” he said.
He tried to play and practice to get ready for Champions Tour Q-School, but was forced to admit that he was no longer good enough.
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