Tom Watson battles time almost to a standstill until time finally wins

By Tim Dahlberg, AP
Monday, July 20, 2009

Watson comes close to story for the ages

TURNBERRY, Scotland — He battled time almost to a standstill until time, as it always does, finally won. Tom Watson was not going to go easily, though, not when he had to know this magical moment was never going to come again.

By the time he reached the 18th tee for the second time on this, the longest of days, Watson understood that. So did thousands of spectators heading for the exits at Turnberry, their day ruined just like his.

A week of exhilarating highs was about to end on the lowest of lows. There was a champion yet to be crowned, but it wouldn’t be the one so many fans here and around the world so desperately wanted.

Still, they applauded, and Watson rewarded them with a weary smile. He watched as Stewart Cink hit an iron down the middle off the final tee, then reached for his hybrid club for a shot that, by now, didn’t matter.

On the side of the tee, Cink and his caddie exchanged a celebratory fist bump. No one, including Watson, seemed to notice.

The story that came so agonizingly close to unfolding on a chilly summer evening on the Scottish coast would have been one for the ages. Now it was simply one about the aging.

“It was almost,” was how Watson described it. “The dream almost came true.”

That it didn’t wasn’t necessarily because Watson kicked it away, though that might be the first impression. Indeed, the putt he badly stubbed to win in regulation will probably be remembered long after any of the preceding 276 shots he took at this British Open are forgotten.

What won’t be forgotten is the way a 59-year-old man nearly delivered a win so monumental it was hard to compare it to anything else that came before. This kind of thing simply can’t happen in most other sports, and had never happened before in golf, either.

Yet there was Watson standing in the middle of the 18th hole in regulation, an 8-iron in his hand, and the tournament in the bag. All he had to do was put it on the green, 2-putt and figure out who to give thanks to in his victory speech.

He couldn’t, and now it’s left to sports historians to some day figure out why. Watson wasn’t quite sure himself, though he sat patiently, his eyes moist and his voice hoarse, and tried to explain afterward.

He spent the day fending off the final-round pressure, and he did it with the ease of someone who had been there many times before. He had won five claret jug trophies, after all, and stared down the great Jack Nicklaus in the celebrated “Duel in the Desert” on these same links 32 years before.

All week long he talked about how comfortable he was here and the serenity he felt on the course. He even went so far as to say there was something spiritual about the whole thing, as if the gods of golf were going to reward him with one last hurrah.

Then his 59-year-old nerves were suddenly exposed. His 59-year-old gas tank suddenly hit empty.

He had 8 feet between himself and sports immortality, and he didn’t come close. The putt was short and to the right, and now he had to somehow regroup and go out and play Cink in a four-hole playoff he never expected to be in.

He didn’t have a chance. There was nothing left.

The crowd scurried to the first playoff hole, only to groan as Watson scuffed an iron shot and made bogey. Soon it became clear they weren’t going to be part of one of the greatest sports stories ever, and they watched glumly as Cink strode confidently to victory.

“It would have been a helluva story wouldn’t it?” Watson said. “It tears at your gut as it always has torn at my gut. It’s not easy to take.”

It almost felt unfair because this was Cink’s dream, too, and he had never won one of these, much less five. Lost in the excitement over Watson’s improbable run to a title three years before he is eligible for Social Security was the fact that Cink made a 12-foot birdie putt on his last hole of regulation just to have a chance and then played steady golf in overtime.

A few people cheered when Cink hit it into a bunker on the first playoff hole, and the cheers for Watson coming up the 18th one last time were far deeper than those for the winner. But Cink was holding the claret jug, which was tonic enough, and he seemed to already understand that he would forever be known as both an Open champion and the player who ruined a special week.

He also understood that some might feel he beat an old man, but that was all right, too.

“I feel like that whether Tom was 59 or 29, you know, he was one of the field, and I had to play against everybody on the field and the course to come out on top,” Cink said. “I don’t think anything can be taken away. Somebody may disagree with that, but it’s going to be hard to convince me.”

Watson had to look a little harder to take something out of this day. He talked about how great it was being back in contention with the best players in the world, as though he were in his prime, and how gratifying it was to walk up the 18th fairway not once, but twice, to standing ovations from packed grandstands that included people who saw him win on the same green all those years ago.

It was fun once again, he insisted, and maybe that was because it made him feel young again. He was hurting, but at the same time he had shown he could still play and — for four rounds at least — play better than anyone else in the world.

The smile he flashed most of the week was there again as he walked off the final green with his arm around his wife. Before leaving, though, he offered this:

“What I’ve always said is when all is said and done, one of the things I hope that will come out of my life is that my peers will say, you know, that Watson, he was a hell of a golfer.”

They will now.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)

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