TURNBERRY, Scotland — One putt from eight feet was all that separated Tom Watson from a moment no one imagined possible until he was close enough to make it happen with one final stroke.
On the verge of becoming golf’s oldest major champion, Watson finally showed his 59-year-old nerves.
The par putt never had a chance. An hour later, neither did Watson.
“It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn’t it?” Watson said. “And it was almost. Almost. The dream almost came true.”
Turns out this British Open was too good to be true.
Stewart Cink, who made a 12-foot birdie on the final hole of regulation that only looked good enough for second place, overwhelmed a weary Watson in the four-hole playoff to win the British Open on Sunday.
Cink posed on the edge of a pot bunker with the claret jug. Watson walked into the press centre and quickly sized up the mood.
“This ain’t a funeral, you know,” he said.
Watson stood on the 18th tee one last time, trailing the playoff by four shots, blinking away tears. He wasn’t alone in his sadness. Thousands of fans who filled the grandstands for the first time all week sat in stunned silence.
Rarely does a major championship end like this one — to polite applause from a gallery of long faces.
Cink, who was never atop the leaderboard all week until Watson missed the winning putt, was flawless in the playoff. He opened with two pars, finished with two birdies and won by six, the largest margin in this format.
Cink and Watson finished at 2-under 278, the highest winning score in the four Opens held at Turnberry.
Gazing at the fabled trophy, he paid his due to the modern-day King of the Links.
“My hat’s off to him,” Cink said. “He turned back the clock. Just did a great job. I speak for all the rest of the people here, too.”
Indeed, he did. The loudest cheer was for the player who won the silver medal.
Cink had to settle for his name engraved on golf’s oldest trophy. Yet even his first major title was bittersweet. It was hard to root against Watson, even for those trying to beat him.
“I have to be honest, playing against Tom in the playoff, it’s mixed feelings because I’ve watched him with such admiration all week,” Cink said. “And of course, it would come down to me against him in the playoff. And then the golf course is so hard that someone eventually is going to probably lose the tournament with mistakes.”
Tied with three other players along the back nine on a breezy afternoon, Watson two-putted for par on the tough 16th hole, where his challengers all made bogey to fall back. Then he made an easy birdie on the par-5 17th, giving him a one-shot lead as this unforgettable British Open reached a crescendo.
From the middle of the 18th fairway, Watson was thinking about hitting a 9-iron, then settled on an 8-iron. The ball soared right at the flag, then bounced hard and fast over the back of the green. His putt back up the slope ran eight feet past the hole.
Watson steadied himself over the par putt, and thousands of fans braced themselves.
The moment ended quickly. It was obvious immediately he didn’t hit it hard enough. Watson’s sagging shoulders confirmed it.
“I made a lousy putt,” said Watson, who closed with a 72. “Then in the playoff, it was bad shot after another.”
For the first time all week, Watson looked tired. His approach to the first playoff hole, No. 5, tumbled into a pot bunker and led to bogey to fall one shot behind. After a remarkable par save on the par-3 sixth, Watson came undone.
He hooked his tee shot on the 17th into grass so deep it took him two hacks to get back to the fairway. He three-putted for a double bogey, while Cink played safe and smart for a two-putt birdie and a four-shot lead.
Jack Nicklaus, whom Watson beat at Turnberry in 1977 in that famous “Duel in the Sun,” shared Watson’s pain.
“I don’t think Tom was tired,” Nicklaus said. “But emotionally, he was spent. All his emotions were spent in those first 18 holes. When Stewart made birdie at 18, and then Tom made bogey, it just goes right through you.
“I feel terrible for him.”
Cink, born two years before Watson won his first claret jug at Carnoustie in 1975, moves to No. 9 in the world ranking.
“It’s been a surreal experience for me,” Cink said. “Not only playing one of my favourite courses and a wonderful tournament, but playing against Tom Watson. This stuff doesn’t happen. I grew up watching him on TV, hoping to follow in his footsteps, not playing against him.”
Some of these fans were at Turnberry in 1977 when Watson beat Nicklaus, the signature victory among Watson’s eight majors.
He just couldn’t beat Father Time.
“It was fun to be in the mix again, having kids who are my kids’ age saying, ’What are you doing out here?’ It was nice showing them you can still play,” Watson said. “I’m sure I’ll take some good things from it. But it’s still a disappointment.”