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.
So when Cink stood over the 15-footer, he didn't know it would be for the right to appear in a playoff. But he had been calm all day, and playing wonderfully all week, and was generally out of the conversation. So he stroked his putt.
"That was another test I had to try to pass," Cink said, and he did, burying it for 69, the only sub-par round by anyone in the final six groups.
The tests then turned to Watson and Westwood, and Westwood failed first. Watson made his birdie at the 17th to get to 3 under, so Westwood had to try to match that at the 18th. He couldn't, driving in a fairway bunker, blasting beautifully to the front of the green, and unforgivably three-putting -- a gaffe that put him in the clubhouse at 1-under 279, a stroke behind Cink, out of the playoff.
"Gone from frustration to sickness," Westwood said.
So it was that Watson stood on the 18th tee, leading the British Open. Consider, for a moment, what that meant. Julius Boros was the oldest winner of a major; he did so at 48 at the 1968 PGA Championship. Last year, at the British, Greg Norman led after nine holes of the final round, and collapsed badly at 53. Go back, instead, to Watson's old rival, Jack Nicklaus, winning the Masters at 46 in 1986, to find a story for the aged.
"This was absolutely Tom Watson's Open, win or lose," Nicklaus said in remarks made through his publicist Sunday night. "Tom long ago secured his legacy in the game. This would have been something to add to the top of the cake."
In the grandstands along the 18th green, some of the Scottish gallery started chanting: "Tom-my! Tom-my! Tom-my!" In the fairway, Watson was mulling over his club choice. 9-iron, he thought. But then he thought again. No, 8-iron, because the pin was in the back of the green, and he just had to make sure he got it there.
"I caught it just the way I wanted to," Watson said, and it landed near the middle of the green. In an event back home, that's likely where it would have stayed. But here, on the links of Scotland, it bounced, and it bounced, and it rolled, and it went through the green, nestling up against the fringe. To win the Open, Watson would now have to get up and down for 4, with Cink watching anxiously on television in the locker room.
Watson went with a putter, and he was firm with it. "I gunned it on by," he said, and that left that putt, the one to win the Open, the one he missed.
The playoff was not a contest. Watson bogeyed No. 5, struggled to make par at No. 6 and hit his drive in the nasty rough on the 17th, which effectively ended it. He ended up with a double bogey 7 there, and Cink -- who played beautifully in the playoff -- went to the 18th tee for the second time on the day, this time with a four-shot lead.
With the tournament all but decided, Watson stood at the back of the tee box, his hands clasped behind him, his lips pursed. For a moment, he looked down at the ground, and his eyes watered.
"When all is said and done," Watson said later, "one of the things I hope that will come out of my life will say, 'You know, that Watson was a hell of a golfer.' "
They said that 32 years ago, when he last won at Turnberry. They said that 26 years ago, when he last won a major. They said that 11 years ago, when he last won on the PGA Tour. And they say it now, in the week he suffered an impossibly unlikely, and unexpectedly crushing, defeat.