What a ride. What a thrilling, phenomenal, emotional, grueling yet friggin' heartrending ride. That's what you'll get from this wonderful game called golf. As you may have heard, Stewart Cink won the 138th edition of the British Open, beating 59-year-old legend Tom Watson in a four-hole playoff. It didn't end the way we wanted. Unless you were related to Cink, everyone was rooting for Watson. Our hearts sank as we watched Watson miss his par putt on the 72nd hole. And even more so when he crumbled in the playoff. Some of us even cried.
So it happened we didn't get our fairytale ending with a Watson victory -- one that would have transcended beyond being not only the greatest moment in golfing history; it would have also been the biggest sports story of the year. Watson would have been the oldest to win a major championship. He would have tied Harry Vardon as the only six-time winner of the British Open. His name would have been engraved in the Claret Jug during three different decades.
But it wasn't meant to be.
That's what Watson said in his press conference on Sunday. His opening words were, "This ain't a funeral, you know? It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn't it?"
Well, it did feel like a funeral to some, present company included. I speak for many when I say that it was hard to hold it together on Sunday. Two full days later, I still can't can't get it out of my mind. Not because I'm sad, per se, but because Watson's near victory was mind-blowing in itself. He put on a performance of a lifetime and captured our hearts. He made us believe that something seemingly impossible was in fact a possibility. It was pure magic to watch a legend make what will most likely be his final run at a major championship. His last hurrah. Unfortunately we can't say "he'll be back and do it again." But we'll never forget what he did last week.
It is still a hell of a story.
Watson started his historic run in the first round, firing a five-under-par 65. That score alone shocked the world. No one could buh-lieve the old-timer was T2. But it wasn't that unfathomable considering Watson's love affair with Turnberry and links golf -- which is a lot like chess. Power and strength aren't as important as they are at any other course on the PGA Tour's schedule. It's much more about strategy and less room for margin or error. Say you hit an errant drive 10 yards off the mark. Well, suddenly, because of gusty crosswinds at Turnberry, it'll be a 40-yard miss. What was a bad shot turns into a really bad shot. Just ask Tiger Woods.
In the second round, the old man showed he wasn't going away. It started out looking like he was going to do what most people thought he would after Thursday -- shoot a 75 and fall off the radar. (Again, that's the great thing about golf, especially on the links, you never know.) He carded five bogeys in the first seven holes. We would have excused him. After all, he is 59. But he fought back and finished the day even-par. After 36 holes he was leading along with relative unknown Steve Marino.
On Saturday, he captivated us even more than a Tiger-Woods-come-from-behind-run-on-Sunday. He was three-over for the day through 15 holes. But like he did all week, he kept battling and doing the unthinkable. He birdied two of the final three holes -- one of which resulted from draining a 20-footer. He finished with a one-over-par 71 and stood alone atop the leaderboard at the end of three rounds. To boot, he made history as the oldest player to lead a major after 54 holes, breaking Greg Norman's record at the British Open from a year ago.
When Sunday rolled around I could hardly handle the anticipation. Were we going to watch Watson rewrite history? Almost. He bogeyed two of the first three holes, but he showed why he's a legend. He reclaimed the sole lead with a birdie on the 17th. All he needed was a par on the 72nd hole. Easier said than done. He flushed an 8 iron on his approach shot -- it landed on the green, but rolled just over. Then he hit his putt from the rough 8 feet past the hole. Adrenaline got the best of him. It's no secret that putts within 10 feet are his Achilles heel. It hurt him when it mattered most. That wretched final putt. He missed. Badly. The champion would be determined in a four-hole playoff.
Little did Cink know the clutch 10-footer he drained on the 72nd hole would ultimately win him the British Open. He went on to play the last four holes brilliantly and slaughtered Watson by a six-shot margin.
Coming down the stretch in regulation play, he was the only guy who made a putt when it really mattered. And that's what decides a champion in majors. Rewind eight years to the '01 U.S. Open. Cink blew an 18-inch putt on the final hole to miss the playoff between Retief Goosen and Mark Brooks.
At the end of 76 holes, Cink played better. Sadly, he has been painted the "villain" for "stealing" the championship from Watson. Now that's absurd and everyone knows it. It's funny too because he's one of golf's nicest and most likable guys. He's the deserving winner; just not the one we hoped for. I think Cink will still take it, though.
However, this British Open belongs to Old Man Watson. Sure, Cink's name will forever be inscribed on the Claret Jug. But ask the non-golf fans that watched on Sunday who ended up winning. They tuned in to see Watson attempt to make history. It's unfortunate that Cink's major win will always be overshadowed by what Watson almost did. But that's just the fact of the matter.
Four words: Jean Van de Velde. In 1999 the Frenchman triple-bogeyed the 18th hole and lost in a playoff. Do you remember who eventually won? Paul Lawrie. I had to look it up.
Other than a runner-up's efforts upstaging the champion's, Watson's loss was nothing like Van de Velde's.
We'll remember the '09 British Open as the one where Watson showed us great heroics. We'll remember why he's known as one of the best ballstrikers of all time. We'll remember the long 20-50 footers he drained consistently throughout the week. We'll conjure up the memory of him walking up the 18th hole waving his hat to the crowd. We'll remember that we'll never see anything like it ever again; that we're lucky to have seen it in our lifetime. I daresay we'll never see another performance of such epic proportions by a legend like him.
What happened last week is a story that we'll tell for years to come. To watch 59-year-old Tom Watson even almost win the '09 British Open is the most inspiring and magical golfing -- no, sporting -- moment so far in my lifetime. Perhaps he didn't muster up a performance as impressive as Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters in '86, but in my mind, it sure will be just as memorable, if not more. Hats off to you, Mr. Watson.
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