TURNBERRY, SCOTLAND - That pristine ogre known as golf has struck again, choosing a gorgeous setting by the Irish Sea to unleash its full and singular meanness upon a cherished 59-year-old man.
It enticed him for four days of enchantment. It ushered him to the 72nd hole with a one-shot lead in a British Open and a chance to broaden earthly possibility. It brought Tom Watson down that No. 18 fairway to deeply felt applause, and then it threw in a blaring roar when his well-struck 8-iron approach on an 8-foot putt smacked down and bounded onto the green.
Then, as that ball pranced across the green on Turnberry's storied No. 18, golf ushered Watson to the very brink of becoming by 11 years the oldest man to win a major tournament, before going and dumping him into untold regret and reissuing an ancient lesson.
Never underestimate its capacity for savagery.
One last, cruel rotation - "an inch," as playing partner Matthew Goggin saw it - sent the ball teetering off the back and down into the collar between two cuts of fringe. It sent Watson toward a whiplash bogey and a four-hole playoff he would lose comprehensively to Stewart Cink, the sudden contender who won his first major title at 36. It sent Watson's face from beaming utterly toward utterly crestfallen.
From the man to watch across four days of 60-foot birdies and precise swings and savvy management, Watson became unwatchable in the playoff as his body went drained and his shots went awry. Golf took him from the brink of mirth to sitting around uttering quotations like, and, "It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn't it?" and "The dream almost came true," and, toward deflated reporters, "Hey, this ain't a funeral, you know!"
"It tears at your gut, as it always has torn at my gut," the five-time British Open champion said. "It's not easy to take."
This beguiling sport even cast the affable Cink as some sort of antagonist. It came even as he gained the playoff by withstanding a meandering back nine and becoming the only player among the top 26 finishers to birdie No. 18, rolling in a keen 12-footer to exemplify his reconstructed putting stroke.
"I can understand the mystique that came really close to developing here, and the story," said Cink, who has top-three finishes in all four majors and won on his 49th major try. "But in the end, you know, it's a tournament to see who lasts the longest. ... It's a survival test, and I don't know what else to say. I don't feel ashamed. I don't feel disappointed. I'm pleased as punch that I've won, and also very proud of the way Tom Watson played."
It would be to select the most merciless aspect of an early evening on the west coast of Scotland.
Maybe it would be that the nightmares to come would happen on the same hole officially named "Duel In The Sun" to extol Watson's famous win over Jack Nicklaus here in 1977. It could be that one of the all-time famous chippers chose a putter from that collar below the green and, if he could have it back, "I wouldn't have hit the putter as hard." Or it could be that the nine-foot par putt he left himself looked like it had buzzards circling overhead from the moment he struck it, meandering off short and to the right as the audience groaned.
Surely, though, golf's ultimate turn of viciousness had to be that it took Watson after four days of energy and vitality from one just seven weeks shy of 60. And then it left him out there for four last holes through which he suddenly looked absolutely 59 and completely sapped.
"The swing just wasn't, you know, it just wasn't quite there," he said.
Suddenly, the galleries who urged him on saw Watson in the rough almost as much as in four holes as he had been in 72. Watson walking up toward a search party hunting his ball. Watson at the grandstand where his drive flew in on No. 18. Watson self-deprecatingly suggesting Cink not come over too far to help out because, "The way I'm hitting it, it might hit you."
He would stand in a waiting area with his arm around his wife afterward, resonating disappointment. He would gamely stand as the runner-up for the closing ceremony, chatting amiably after Cink said into the microphone, "Tom, I don't know what to say." He would rank the disappointment "right up there with '94 when I played so well here" in the Open "then came up with nothing" on Sunday.
He would say those wretched words, "In retrospect, I probably would have hit a 9-iron rather than an 8-iron" going into No. 18. "I hit the 8-iron just the way I meant to."
But before he said all that, he would stand on the No. 18 tee, four shots behind the steady Cink after three playoff holes, the suspense departed, the day exhausted. At that very same spot he had stood in just the previous hour looking completely energized, inspired and young. Now, after one unfortunate rotation of one ball, he looked shattered, tired and 59.
That was very mean.
The winner ...
Stewart Cink...66-72-71-69 - 278
(won in 4-hole playoff)
... selected followers
Tom Watson...65-70-71-72 - 278
Chris Wood...70-70-72-67 - 279
Lee Westwood...68-70-70-71 - 279
Luke Donald...71-72-70-67 - 280
Retief Goosen...67-70-71-72 - 280
Mathew Goggin...66-72-69-73 - 280
Soren Hansen...68-72-74-67 - 281
Justin Leonard...70-70-73-68 - 281
Ernie Els...69-72-72-68 - 281
Thomas Aiken...71-72-69-69 - 281
Richard Johnson...70-72-69-70 - 281
Jeff Overton...70-60-76-67 - 282
Despite loss, Watson and his fans renew link. PG 10