Tom Watson Misses Shot at History, Loses to Stewart Cink at British Open

The 138th British Open, played at Turnberry in South Ayrshire, Scotland.
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009

TURNBERRY, Scotland, July 19 -- It would have been so much easier had Tom Watson played four nice little rounds of golf here, acquitted himself well as a 59-year-old fighting to keep his legend alive on a course he loves dearly, but allowed someone of a different vintage -- say, Stewart Cink, a fine player -- to seize both the spotlight and the tournament by the final day. That way, when Cink stood on the 18th green in the low sun clutching the Claret Jug -- as he did Sunday evening -- the fans in golf's homeland would have thought of him, and only him, when the 138th Open Championship came up in conversation.

This Open, though, will never be remembered that way, because for four days and 71 1/2 riveting holes, the Tom Watson of 2009 played like Tom Watson of 1979, and a whole world of previously inconceivable possibilities opened up. The final one was this: Watson had an eight-foot par putt on the 18th green at the Ailsa course he so loves, a putt that would have simultaneously won him his record-tying sixth Open, made him history's oldest major champion and completed what would surely have become one of sport's most enduring and endearing stories.

And he missed it.

"Made a lousy putt," Watson said, and that's just what it was, one that never had a chance. Though there would be a four-hole playoff, which Cink won in a romp, that really was the last meaningful stroke of the tournament.

Thus, meet Stewart Ernest Cink, 36, an Alabaman by birth, a Georgian by address, a winner of five events on the PGA Tour before Sunday, now a first-time major champion.

"I'm engulfed by joy, for sure," Cink said. "I can understand, though, the mystique that came really close to developing here, and the story."

So, too, could Watson, who staved off those feelings and visions of what it would have meant all week, only to confront them through moist eyes after it ended.

"It would have been a hell of a story," Watson said. "It wasn't to be. And yes, it's a great disappointment. It tears at your gut, as it always has torn at my gut. It's not easy to take."

Especially, perhaps, now. Had the 1979 version of Tom Watson lost a tournament in such a fashion, there would have been the next week or the next year or the next decade to replace disappointments with accomplishments. Now, unexpectedly, Watson has a fresh wound he must try to lick clean. His demons, had he played respectably but not spectacularly here, could have remained where they belong, back in the 1980s, when his putting stroke became spotty and he lost tournaments he might have won.

"I'm glad this happened," Watson said, because this is the one tournament he still believes he can win, the one in which he has a kinship with his surroundings and the fans, where he feels, as he said, "a lot of spirituality."

"There was something out there," Watson said. "I still believe that."

Yet it was, in fact, painful. Cink called the tournament a "survival test," and he was able to survive, at least in part, because he played in a pairing that went off a half hour before Watson and his playing partner, Mathew Goggin. When Cink arrived at the 18th green in regulation, he was 1 under par, with 15 feet left for a closing birdie. At that point, the tournament appeared to be between Watson and Englishman Lee Westwood, who were both at 2 under -- Westwood having tapped in for birdie at the par-5 17th, and Watson still to take advantage of that hole.

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