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Fractured Fairy Tale: Watson Loses 2009 British Open to Cink

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – Mighty Casey has struck out.

— Ernest Thayer, “Casey at the Bat” —

When Tom Watson had the Claret Jug cruelly dashed from his lips on the last shot of the last hole of the 2009 British Open, when the final twist of the dagger cut out his heart and ours, life mirrored literature. Now golf has a real-life version of Ernest Thayer’s classic baseball poem, and golf fans, having endured the crushing blow with Watson, are equally devastated. Welcome to Mudville: Population -everybody.

This was the biggest story in golf in 100 years. Not since amateur and former caddie Francis Ouimet defeated mighty titans Harry Vardon and Ted Ray to win the 1913 U.S. Open had an underdog of this magnitude emerged to rock the establishment to its foundation. Well-liked, well-decorated, and supposedly well past his prime, the 59-year old Watson – eleven years older than the eldest winner in the 149-year recorded history of major championship golf – materialized out of the mists of time like a golf reverie, a walking highlight reel, creating a new masterpiece where he had composed an indisputable one 32 years earlier.

Countless records were waiting to be equaled or shattered, among them three biggies: longest time between wins at a major, first player to win a major as a senior, and most British Open victories. There are plenty more as well; if we had to list every one, we’d be here till winter.

Only Harry Vardon has won more Claret Jugs. Watson won five times on five different Rota courses. Watson consistently defeated all the greatest players of his age: Nicklaus, Trevino, and Miller, to name a few. Look at the astounding feats he achieved along the way:

1975 – In his first British Open appearance, he birdies the 18th at Carnoustie, (birdies 18 at Carnoustie!!!). Nobody birdies 18 at Carnoustie without Harry Houdini on the bag. That forced an 18-hole playoff with Jack Newton, who he soundly routed to win his first major.

1977 – After nipping Jack Nicklaus at the Masters three months earlier, he wins the “Duel in the Sun,” regarded as one of the most celebrated and thrilling battles in sports, closing 65-65 to edge jack’s closing 65-66 by one shot. He rallied from two shots behind Nicklaus with six holes to play, a feat broadcaster Peter Alliss called impossible earlier that day.

1980 – At Muirfield he fired a third round 64, then held off Lee Trevino.

1982 – At Royal Troon he made up four shots on Nick Price over the last five holes to steal the Claret Jug.

1983 – At Royal Birkdale. he wins his fifth Open Championship in nine starts. In this same nine year period, he won a total of eight majors, five consecutive money titles, and six Player of the Year awards. He was golf’s answer to Mighty Casey: unflappable in the clutch, unyielding to the competition, a cast-iron closer, and a beloved, inspiring figure. He was indomitable. When he came to the last hole with the lead at a major, he never lost.

For this week, it was 1977 all over again. He was the Watson of old, a few pounds added to his hips, and a few age wrinkles aside. He made putts from across the green, he got up and down from everywhere (even atop Ailsa Craig and from inside the lighthouse, or so it seemed), and he played through a vicious crosswind that confounded everyone else. Hitting the narrow wisps of fairway with laser precision, after three rounds, he held the lead, by a dozen years the oldest man ever to do so in a major. Many of the guys chasing him weren’t even born when he was in his prime.

Like “Casey at the Bat,” the day didn’t start well for Watson, (“the outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day…”). His bogey at the first had Watson playing from behind all day and even though as the round progressed no one knew whose side the Golf Gods were on – four different players held the lead in a span of four holes – Watson was still a longshot. It looked like Casey wouldn’t get a chance to save the day.

And then, miraculously, players fell away like leaves. Ross Fisher became T.C. Chen and threw away the lead with a quadruple-bogey. Westwood turned into Thomas Bjorn – the Dane who coughed up three strokes in three holes and gave the Claret Jug to Ben Curtis in 2003 – and lost three shots on the last five holes. Goggin, Goosen, Els, and Chris Wood all faltered. Even Cink squandered opportunities coming home. In a span of four holes, four different players held the lead, and then gave it back.

And when the dust has settled and we saw what had occurred, there was Watson walking up 16 with the lead alone and the last dangerous hazard, Wilson’s Burn, behind him. He had the short 17th, a birdie hole, and them the formality of the 3-wood, short-iron 18th.

Watson went from miracle to mortal lock.

Fifteen minutes later, there he was, our Mighty Casey in the middle of the 18th fairway, still with the lead hitting a perfect approach – “I like it,” was what he told the press he said to himself after he hit it – and the ball made a beeline for the pin, dead on target. Two putts, just like old times, and he was home.

His walk up 18 was sublime, one of the most sincere outpourings of joy golf has seen since Nicklaus hung the moon the stars and the Sun in 1986 at Augusta. It was so exalted a moment, so glorious that PGA stars and broadcast journalists came out to the green join the rest of the fans to pay their respects, and see first hand the sports story of their lifetimes.

And then it had all the atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb.

“It went from a festival to a funeral” said Irish writer Brian Keogh. “It was like watching Santa Claus get mugged on Christmas Eve.”

”Not a single person on the planet didn’t feel the pain,” agreed writer Sal Johnson.

“If they’d have passed out black armbands, we’d have worn them as a mark of respect,” said a third writer.

Then there was my favorite comment, by a college friend in the U.K: “I was so upset, I wasn’t watching what I was doing and put suntan lotion in my hair instead of mousse.”

What does a loss like this do to a player?

“Now it’s like Jack,” Watson said, referring to how Nicklaus felt after Watson defeated him at Turnberry and Pebble Beach. “I don’t remember any club I hit out there at any time.” The memory, once shining and glorious, turned horribly black. As Mike McDermott said in Rounders, he can’t remember how he’d built up his fortune, but he won’t stop thinking about how he lost it.

Both Watson and golf deserved any other ending but this. Let him shoot 77. Let him take an unfortunate triple mid-round. Heck, let him sprain an ankle coming to the course. Give us any ending other than hitting two perfect shots on 18 and losing with a bad bounce and a ghastly three-putt. 100 years of history was waiting. Was one more putt too much to ask?” After all the sixty footers he holed this week? After all the sixty footers he made all his life? As Dan Jenkins likes to say, “fate don’t have a head.”

Jenkins also quipped on his Twitter feed that Stewart Cink might be the most hated man in golf right now. That’s too strong, as a Cink is one of the most likeable guys on Tour. He’s a super-nice guy, a smart respectful student of golf history, generous with his time to every golf writer out there, and has a first class, blue-collar work ethic. Winning a major couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, that hideous apple-green shirt and cap aside. (Good Lord, Stew, you looked you were an extra in a Jolly Rancher candy commercial.) “I though he looked like Shrek,” my girlfriend added.

Under normal circumstances, you can’t blame a guy for picking up a Claret Jug he finds on the ground, (see Ben Curtis and Paul Lawrie), but unless Cink wins another major, he’ll forever be known as the greatest party-pooper in a 100 years. “It transcends time if Watson wins,” said Cink, and he was exactly right.

A hair divides the false from true, and in the end, we saw the moment of greatness flicker and disappear, a will-o-the-wisp. Lady Turnberry, you’re a drama queen.

Still, today the Golf Gods reminded us that sometimes we learn more from the catharsis of tragedy then the elation of victory. We’ll never forget who finished second, empty though that may for Watson. He illuminated us all with his valor, courage, and fortitude.

“I dreamt it, and I coulda done it, I know how to play this golf course,” Watson lamented after the round. “At Augusta, it’s largely ceremonial to go. I can’t play that golf course any more. But here I could compete.”

That grace and class in such a moment of dejection is the reason why we love Watson. Those virtues shine more brightly than any Claret Jug, and they are why Watson was so much more a champion this week than, for example, Tiger Woods or Sandy Lyle.

“Whether or not Tom wins, it doesn’t make a difference,” said Nicklaus said. “Of course, we all wanted to see Tom win, but what he has accomplished already is a phenomenal achievement. This was his tournament.

Jack is right. Stewart Cink won the Claret Jug, but Tom Watson will forever be this year’s Champion.

There is also a deeper, more undeniable truth – the Claret Jug, but Tom Watson will forever be this Open’s Champion. Golf endured a crushing blow today, but golf will endure, and so will the hearts of golf lovers everywhere. Great stories are where we find them. Yes Watson came in second, but we’ll still love him for it.

So somewhere champagne flows, the Claret Jug is full and somewhere Stew Cink and his friends are basking in the warm afterglow. Somewhere men are laughing, and joyous children shout.

But there’s still no joy in Golfdom…Mighty Watson’s putt stayed out.