Tom Watson was one stroke away from winning his sixth claret jug.
Robert Beck/SI
Wednesday, January 11, 2012

TURNBERRY, Scotland - A 50-year-old golf fan stood with his teenage son and watched Tom Watson play the 10th hole Sunday.

"Watch how far left he aims this," Tom Lehman told his son Thomas Andrew, 13, at the 138th British Open at Turnberry.

Lehman, the 1996 Open champion, had already finished his round. His third straight 74 would leave him in 60th place, but that didn't matter. A 59-year-old man with a hip replacement and five Opens already, a golfing ghost who won here in 1977, was winning the 2009 Open. "I've got a good feeling about today," Lehman said from inside the ropes, and you had to assume he wasn't talking about Mathew Goggin.

Watson aimed left, let his approach shot ride the wind and watched it land on the right edge of the green, from where it fed toward the pin. Par. Watson birdied the par-3 11th hole, raising his putter in the air as the ball disappeared. He was now fully engaged with England's Lee Westwood, playing just ahead of him, and a lot of other people had a good feeling, too.

Who was the crowd for?

"Watson," said a marshal with a thick brogue. "Watson's half-Scottish, or should be with that many Opens."

Fans wore orange caps, a Nevada Bob's giveaway item, and on the blank spot above the bill scrawled exhortations like "Come on, Tom!"

Greg Norman had played his way into the final twosome of the 2008 Open but fell apart on the back nine. Phil Mickelson, the people's choice at Bethpage Black, was on his way to winning the 2009 U.S. Open for himself and his ailing wife, Amy, until it all began to go wrong on 15.

But Watson made believers out of everyone. He wasn't succumbing to the moment, crosswinds or age. He knew how to finish. Watson made us certain that the most fanciful sports story of the century was going to get every last edit and chapter heading and wind up in hardcover.

"I have no idea what I'm going to do," Watson said earlier in the week, after he took the first-round lead with a five-under 65. But by the back nine on Sunday, he and everyone else had seen enough to know exactly what he was going to do. He was going to win.

He made a routine par on 12, and a marshal argued with an R&A official over who would get to collect the pin. (The R&A man won.) Lehman paused by the gallery ropes on 13 and chatted with a blonde in a black cap with "TWD" across the top — Tom Watson Designs. Hilary Watson, Tom's wife, said: "Keep him calm out there, will you?"

Watson and Goggin bogeyed 14 to fall to two under. Westwood had the lead at three under, but he got too aggressive with his tee shot on 15 and watched his ball dribble into the back bunker. Bogey.

There were competing theories about the significance of a Watson victory. He would become the oldest to win a major by 11 years, which was amazing, but on the other hand it might reflect badly on the sport, or the rest of professional golf, that a man just two months shy of 60 could prevail.

"This will be the worst thing that could happen to golf," a scribe said.

"It'll be the best thing that could happen to golf," another replied.

Watson made a safe par on 15 while Goggin bogeyed his second hole in a row. Westwood bogeyed 16. Watson led by himself. He left himself a testy four-footer for par on 16 and made it. We'll all replay the rest in our heads for some time. Westwood birdied 17, his eagle putt defying the laws of physics, and Watson birdied it, too.

All he needed now was to par 18, but what happened next underlines the infinitesimal smallness of what decides these things. After finding the fairway, Watson felt he should hit a 9-iron, but thought again. He hit an 8.

"I like it," he said as his ball hung in the air, and the crowd did, too.

Alas, Watson's ball rolled up to the pin and kept on going, ending up just over the putting surface. Media, officials, players and caddies encircled the green, positioned according to sight lines and the way they wanted to answer the question: Where were you when 59-year-old Tom Watson won the British Open?

Almost no one thought the putter would detonate in his hands, his ball rolling 12 feet past the pin.

"I didn't see Tom bogeying the last, since he's such an experienced player" said Westwood, whose devastating three-putt on 18 left him with a final-round 71 and a one-under total, a shot out of the playoff.

Stewart Cink, who had birdied 18, watched from the men's locker room. As Watson's par putt petered out short and right, Cink turned without a word and headed back to the course.

Watson had nothing left. He hit his 5-iron approach fat on the first playoff hole, the par-4 fifth, to bogey and fall one behind. He managed a miraculous up-and-down on the par-3 sixth to match Cink's par but did little after that.

The honorary Scot made a haggis of the par-5 17th hole, whipping his tee shot left ("My legs didn't work," he said later) and then failing to get out of the rough with his second shot, a rare mental error from a veteran pro. Cink reached the green in two. It was all but over.

"Hey, this ain't a funeral, you know," Watson said as the media filed into his press conference. He'd entertained the members of the Fourth Estate after every round. "I take from this week just a lot of warmth. A lot of spirituality in the sense that, you know, there was something out there. I still believe that. It helped me along. It's Turnberry."

His line in the playoff: bogey, par, double-bogey, bogey. With two pars and two birdies, Cink, a kind and decent man, won by six strokes and reminded a million misty-eyed dreamers that no, there is no Shivas Irons, no Santa Clause and no AARP discount on the scorecard.

Watson's hopes and our own had been snuffed by a younger ball-crusher in matching cap and shirt, and, really, how surprising was that? Tom Watson winning the British Open? Yeah, maybe in 1989 or even '99, but in 2009? The whole thing was beyond preposterous. Wasn't it?

"It would have been a hell of a story," Watson said. "It wasn't to be, and yes, it's a great disappointment. It tears at your gut."

He was asked if he might take away a single memory. He paused, as if trying to think how to say what he was about to say without crying.

"Coming up the 18th hole again," Watson said. "Those memories are hard to forget. Coming up in the amphitheater of the crowd and having the crowd cheering you on like they do here for me. As I said, the feeling is mutual. And that warmth makes you feel human. It makes you feel so good."

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