TURNBERRY, Scotland At 6:19 p.m. Sunday, on a spit of land hard by the Firth of Clyde, an old man with a new hip strode down the center of a dusty fairway. The summer sun was bathing Turnberry in gold, exactly as it had 32 years ago, the very first time Tom Watson conquered these storied, ancient links.
Watson's moment had come again, it seemed, and all of Turnberry felt it. The grandstands at the 18th hole creaked with the weight of the young and old. A silver trophy that Watson had won five times before was waiting in a trailer off the green.
A par would make the 59-year-old Watson the 138th and most improbable Open Champion. But destiny and the languid swing of Stewart Cink would deny him.
On the 72nd hole Watson finally, heartbreakingly, started to look his age, hitting his birdie putt from behind the green 10 feet past the hole, and then leaving his par putt for the championship inches short. The next hour, and a four-hole playoff, belonged to the 36-year-old Cink, who topped Watson by six shots and won the British Open for the first major of his career.
"It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn't it?" said Watson, who nearly claimed a record-tying sixth British Open. "It wasn't to be. It tears at your gut, as it always has torn at my gut. It's not easy to take."
Instead, it was Cink who three-putted the 72nd hole at the 2001 United States Open to miss a playoff by a shot claiming the oldest major championship in golf.
"This week, for some reason, I just believed that I had something good," Cink said. "I felt like I was just totally at peace."
Before Watson's bogey at the 72nd hole, Cink had made a furious run to catch him, offsetting three back-nine bogeys with four birdies, including one at 18, to reach two-under 278.
Cink looked spry and focused in the four-hole playoff over the fifth, sixth, 17th and 18th holes. Watson appeared tired.
After both players hit into different greenside bunkers on No. 5, Cink got up and down for par while Watson bogeyed. After matching pars at No. 6, highlighted by Watson's brilliant up and down from a patch of rough 60 yards right of the hole, Cink pulled away. He birdied No. 17 while Watson drove into the left rough and made double bogey.
"I hit a chubby 5-iron for my second shot on the first playoff hole," Watson said. "The hybrid I hit on the second [playoff] hole, I got stuck. My legs didn't work at the drive at 17. By that time Stewart had it pretty well in hand."
In 2009, the major championship golf season has been about sentimental stories that almost were. Kenny Perry at the Masters, nearly winning a green jacket for himself and his cancer-stricken mother before two late bogeys derailed him.
Phil Mickelson at the United States Open, trying to win a trophy for his wife, Amy, who is battling breast cancer.
Watson's week was about pure nostalgia, about a former champion who had undergone a hip replacement in October, channeling his younger self on a golf course where he had defeated Jack Nicklaus in the famous Duel in the Sun in 1977.
Cink realized quickly that he would not be the crowd favorite in the playoff. Afterward, he said he was familiar with the role.
"I've played plenty of times with Tiger and hear the Tiger roars and Mickelson," said Cink, who closed with a final-round 69. "I'm usually the guy that the crowd [appreciates], but they're not behind me 100 percent of the way.
"I feel like whether Tom was 59 or 29, he was one of the field, and I had to play against everybody in the field, and the course, to come out on top."
Cink's victory was the culmination of a wild day atop the leader board. Both England's Lee Westwood and Chris Wood bogeyed their final holes to finish a shot out of the playoff. England's Ross Fisher, whose wife, Joanne, is expecting the couple's first child, held a two-shot lead through four holes but melted down on the par-4 fifth.
After hitting his drive into tall fescue on the right, Fisher swiped at his second shot but barely moved it. His third swing dislodged the ball, but it shot across the fairway into an even worse lie to the left. Fisher took an unplayable lie, which cost him a stroke, hit his fifth into the wispy rough to the right, knocked his sixth onto the green and took two putts for an 8.
On the back nine, the leader board continued to tighten, with Watson and Westwood jostling for the lead, with Cink staying within shouting distance. Even the golfers who had finished their rounds walked back onto the course to watch the conclusion, including the 1996 Open champion, Tom Lehman, and 1997 Open Champion, Justin Leonard.
Clinging to his one-shot lead on the final hole of regulation, Watson found the fairway with his drive and then hit an 8-iron toward the flagstick, where a par appeared likely. The ball bounded off the back of the green. It was one club too many.
"In retrospect, I probably would have hit a 9-iron rather than an 8-iron," said Watson, who nearly became the oldest major champion by 11 years. "I caught it just the way that I wanted to and, sure enough, it went too far."
Once in the playoff, Watson didn't have much left. As his game deserted him, the crowd began to murmur and, finally, grow silent. Cink kept peppering fairways and greens.
On the final hole of the playoff, Cink hit an iron to a few feet and made birdie to finish at two under for the playoff to Watson's four over.
Afterward, the two men embraced on the green, just as Watson and Nicklaus had 32 years before. Watson was on top of the world then, young and powerful and a master of links golf.
Once more, Watson was walking in his old footsteps, one stroke short of completing a remarkable circle.
"It was 'almost,'" he said as gray clouds obscured the summer sun. "The dream almost came true."