Tom at Turnberry
pblackwell, Mon, July 20th, 2009
As the Open Championship moved to its moving conclusion, a four-hole playoff settled and no chance that Stewart Cink, the gentleman Georgian, would be caught, the engraver already putting his name on the Claret Jug, all eyes turned to the vanquished, not the victor.
For really, that's what this edition of the world's oldest golf tournament was about - an old man evoking his brilliant youth and nearly providing golf with one of its seminal moments.
Tom Watson had already done this at Turnberry - 32 years ago, with Jack Nicklaus, their "Duel in the Sun" a fixed part of the golfing annals. Watson's return for this particular Open was supposed to be little more than nostalgia. The British bookies had him at 500-1.
By contrast, Tiger Woods went off at 2-1. He also went home Friday night, done in by wild driving and uneven play. Perhaps making him the odds-on choice every single time he tees off puts too much pressure on the guy.
Meanwhile, Watson tore through a tame, windless Turnberry with 65 on Thursday. The darn thing was he didn't stop there, and maybe the wind kicking up the rest of the way played right into his hands, for instead of a birdie fest, it would take patience and brains to get around the Ailsa course. Not to mention some wisdom, which Watson, two months short of 60, had on everyone else in Scotland.
Beloved in the birthplace of golf for his five previous victories (the last coming a mere 26 years ago), Watson saw the Scottish masses cheer him on, and he was right - it was spiritual. The 70 on Friday, the 71 on Saturday - it kept him in the lead, just like Greg Norman 12 months ago at Birkdale.
But while Norman fell away, Watson hung in there through a wild, wind-swept Sunday on the Firth of Clyde where a half-dozen players could have won.
First Ross Fisher, his wife expecting a baby at any moment, seizing the lead, then falling away after a snowman 8 on the 5th.
Then Matthew Goggin, of Tasmania, grabbing a share of the lead before three straight bogeys in the closing holes. And Lee Westwood, so close so many times before, with a bogey on the 18th when a par would have meant playoff.
Cink, a great player without the major to verify it, hung on the periphery most of the way. But when he birdied the brutal 18th and posted 278, he stood to benefit if the old man could not bring it home.
To recreate the emotion as Watson strode up that 72nd fairway is pointless. An entire sports world seemed to want him become the oldest major champion by a full 11 years.
Yet that last eight-iron flew a bit too far, flying over the green. The chip went to eight feet. But the putt to win it never even scared the hole. Cue the sound of a balloon, punctured.
You sort of knew what would follow. Just as, 10 years ago, Jean Van de Velde was fated to doom after that 72nd-hole seven at Carnoustie, Watson finally felt all of his 59 years in that playoff, with two wayward approaches and a wayward drive.
Cink won, and almost felt apologetic for it. Most other times, a first major win is a joy to savor. Yet even with his wife and two sons present, Cink knew he had been the villain in this tale, crushing Watson's impossible dream.
Brave as always (you could say he was a Braveheart - this is Scotland, after all), Watson smiled and had to cheer everyone else up, even though he admitted that the defeat would tear at his gut.
And surely it will hurt, for the short term. Yet soon enough, Tom Watson will look back and, like all of us, marvel at the course of events of these last four days in the shadow of Ailsa Craig. May we all get that same kind of chance, to suspend the passage of time and feel a bit immortal...