Injuries derailed Watts after losing '98 British Open playoff

7/14/2008 - Golf Brian Watts Todd Hamilton + more

Of course, things would be different today. Winning a major championship -- the game's oldest tournament -- alters life in ways that are unimaginable at the time. Doors open that never close. A certain status is afforded. And the history can never be altered.

But 10 years after his brush with immortality at the British Open, Brian Watts acknowledges that victory then could not have diverted the ensuing path. The Claret Jug would have been nice, but inside there was no ointment for a hip condition that led to surgery and has bothered him for most of the past eight years.

Watts, now 42, very much wanted to return this week to Royal Birkdale, the site of his 1998 playoff loss to Mark O'Meara and where the Open Championship will be played for the ninth time. But the American has played just three times this year, all in Japan, including the recent Mizuno Open, where a top-four finish would have secured a trip to England. Watts had big dreams but missed the cut, and was content to have played in three successive weeks for the first time in five years.

"It'll always hurt that I didn't win,'' Watts said recently from his Dallas home, where he is preparing for a run at the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament later this year. "That'll never go away, for many reasons. No. 1, I don't like to lose. When you have an opportunity to win a big golf tournament such as the Open, you really need to take advantage of those things. … So that's the frustrating thing, because it might be my only chance to ever do that.

"The positive thing from that week was I really played up to my ability. And when I did that, I had an opportunity to compete. I had done that many times on the professional level, but all in Japan. And the only people who know that were the guys who played in Japan and the fans in Japan. So for me to finally play well at a tournament where the mass media was there and it was a worldwide event, it was very gratifying, even though I didn't win.''

Watts grew up in Texas and starred at Oklahoma State, where he won the NCAA individual title in 1987. But it took him three years to earn his PGA Tour card, and when he finally did, the results were poor. With a dearth of mini tours available and without even a spot on the Ben Hogan Tour (now the Nationwide Tour), Watts headed to the Far East and the Asian Tour.

After winning a tournament and the Order of Merit, he earned playing privileges on the Japan Tour.

"I was making some money, winning a few tournaments, and thought this was pretty cool,'' Watts said. "All of a sudden, two years turned into six.''

He played well enough to earn invites to several big tournaments, including the Players Championship, PGA Championship and Open Championship. And that's how he found himself at Birkdale in 1998 playing in his sixth British Open and -- after two rounds -- in the lead. Through 54 holes while playing in adverse conditions for most of the second and third rounds, Watts was the only player to finish at even par.

Growing up in windswept Texas, playing for a tough golf coach at Oklahoma State in Mike Holder, taking his game to Asia, where conditions were not always the best … all of that seemed to serve him well at Birkdale. Playing the Japan Tour for so many years, especially, has a way of hardening you.

"It did for me,'' said Todd Hamilton, who played five years on the Asian Tour, 12 years on the Japan Tour, and many a practice round with Watts. "It was a whole country not wanting us to do well. They didn't even want us being over there. That was the feeling I got, especially from the older golfers who struggled to keep their card. … It did harden me. I played in places like Thailand, Korea and Taiwan. India. Saw a lot of things I'd like to see again, but I saw a lot more things I don't want to see.''

Playing in the final twosome with Jesper Parnevik, Watts held a two-shot lead with nine holes to play over O'Meara. They traded the lead on the back nine until Watts needed to get up and down from a greenside bunker in which he had an awkward stance to force a playoff. (Tiger Woods missed the playoff by a stroke.) Watts' shot came off beautifully, and after making par it was on to a four-hole aggregate, where O'Meara birdied the first hole and went on to win by two.

It was O'Meara's second major title of the year, following his Masters victory, and turned out to be his last win on the PGA Tour.

For Watts, it was supposed to be a new beginning. The second-place money essentially secured his PGA Tour playing privileges for 1999. He went back to Japan and won the Casio World Open, his 12th victory in five years, then set his sights on playing at home, full time.

Playing the PGA Tour in 1999, Watts made the cut in all four major championships and the Players Championship, had four top-10 finishes and earned more than $700,000. But by 2000, hip and back problems started to get the best of him. Watts had surgery in early 2001 for a torn labrum in his hip, came back and played well enough to keep his card, but never felt the same until recently, when he got to the bottom of some of his medical issues.

Meanwhile, his old running mate in Japan, Hamilton, was earning his PGA Tour card for the 2004 season, becoming a "rookie'' at age 38. Hamilton won the Honda Classic, then found himself in a playoff with Ernie Els at Royal Troon, which he won.

Watts clearly recognizes the irony. Today, the two golfers live 200 yards from one another in a Dallas suburb. Both played college golf in Oklahoma (Hamilton at the University of Oklahoma). Both took their careers to Asia. And both were in British Open playoffs, with Hamilton winning and Watts coming up short.

"We've never spoken about it, but it is quite ironic,'' Watts said. "I'd have to say that knowing Todd and the way his mind works and when he was in position to win that tournament, maybe me finishing second let him believe in his heart that he could win -- even though I didn't, I had a chance. I'm guessing that might have been a helpful thing that I played well in that same tournament six years prior.

"He won and I didn't, and it's not a jealousy thing. That would be kind of childish. I remember we had a party for him when he came back and I was the first one to shake his hand when he came through the door. I was happy for him and could not have been more proud. I've never thought about what might have been.

"I guess if I look back on anything, it was more the disappointment I didn't win. I missed a 5-footer on the first playoff hole and a 15-footer on the second playoff hole, and both times [O'Meara] was outside of me. And he has the lead. … Those are the things I was more frustrated about.''

In recent times, the frustration has centered around Watts' health. He has played in fewer than 40 tournaments the past five years. He credits Dr. Greg Rose and a team of therapists at the Titleist Performance Institute in Oceanside, Calif., with a fitness program that has done wonders for his hip, back and golf swing. Watts learned that his hip issues caused other problems, including a herniated disk. He also had torn cartilage in his left knee.

That is why Watts played so infrequently in recent years. He was determined to get healthy first. Now it's just a matter of finding a place to play -- and his game.

"He's very competitive and has a lot of friends who play golf professionally,'' Hamilton said. "I would think he would want to show them that he can still do it. He hasn't been healthy for so long and it's been a long time since he grinded it out. But he was always so steady, and I would think he could do it.''

As it turns out, a British Open victory in 1998 could not have thwarted what Watts has endured. He would have been exempt through the 2003 season on the PGA Tour, but he pretty much played throughout that period anyway. An Open title, however pleasant, would not make the hip pain go away.

"If I had won, I would have a real cool trophy sitting in my office right now,'' Watts said. "And a couple more dollars in my bank account. And I'd be a part of history. That's what would have been different.''

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.