When 59-year-old professional golfer Tom Watson steadied himself over an 8-foot putt that would have given him his sixth British Open golf championship last weekend in Scotland and made him the oldest ever to win one of the sport’s four major tournaments, many watching the televised drama unfold likely suspected that the golfing gods would conspire to somehow thwart the man in his quest for golfing immortality.
As the ball wobbled off the blade of Watson’s putter and curled weakly to a stop well short of the hole, those suspicions were confirmed. There was no use worrying about it, because obviously nothing was going to turn out OK for Watson after that.
He dropped a stroke and finished tied for the championship with fellow American Stewart Cink at two under par for the tournament. There would be a four-hole playoff featuring a golfer who minutes before had canned a 12-foot birdie putt on the last hole in regulation, and a golfer who had just had the starch knocked out of him by a blown-putt bogey on the same green. Emotional high meets emotional low, winner take all. Guess who wins in that matchup, my little chickadee?
To the surprise of few, Cink dominated the playoff and won his first British Open. A tired Watson would forever be known as the old geezer who, two months shy of his 60th birthday, finished one stroke away from becoming by far the oldest man in history to win a major.
But what a run he made at it. All week long he had kept his name atop the leader board, the world watching and cheering him on. As Watson strode down the 18th fairway on Sunday with a one-stroke lead and needing only to par the final hole to defy Father Time and win the tournament, old fogies everywhere stood proud in anticipation of sweet victory.
It was actually going to happen. Our man, the gifted surrogate we had designated to represent us in humbling golfdom’s elite young whippersnappers on windswept Turnberry’s seaside links was going to pull it off. Get ready to pop the cork on that bottle of champagne, Grandma, because tonight we’re going to celebrate.
And then the golfing gods decided to play nasty.
Suddenly, one of the game’s greatest players, faced with a makable 8-foot putt to seal his enshrinement in the record books, had morphed into Mr. Everyman Weekend Hacker with a serious case of the yips on his way to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Although the rest is history, it is not the version much of the world had in mind.
I’m guessing that many golfers watching the botched putt and attempting to feel Watson’s pain rationalized his misfortune by musing that they’d been there, done that many a time. That may be so, but the difference, of course, is that they hadn’t been there, done that on the final hole of the British Open with the championship on the line and the entire planet watching.
Cink seemed to understand that he might forever be known as both an Open champion and the player who ruined a special week, as Associated Press reporter Tim Dahlberg reported.
But that was all right with him. “I feel that whether Tom was 59 or 29, he was one of the field, and I had to play against everybody in the field and on the course to come out on top,” he said. “I don’t think anything can be taken away.”
It’s pretty hard to disagree with the man. He won it fair and square, under intense pressure, and the first to congratulate him was Watson, whom Cink said he grew up watching on television, “hoping to follow in his footsteps, not playing against him.” The experience had been surreal, he said.
“The dream almost came true,” Watson said in defeat. He had a simple explanation for his misfortune: “I made a lousy putt. Then in the playoff it was one bad shot after another … It’s not easy to take.”
Had he pulled it off, “it would have been a helluva story, wouldn’t it?” he asked reporters. Most who watched the legendary golfer’s inspirational performance undoubtedly thought it was a helluva story, anyway.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at email@example.com.