- The Washington Times - Monday, July 20, 2009

TURNBERRY, Scotland | From epic to epic anticlimax, Tom Watson finally acted his age Sunday night at Turnberry.

After 71 heroic holes and two near-perfect strikes up the 18th at the Ailsa Course, the 59-year-old wobbled to a finishing bogey at the 138th British Open, opening the door for Stewart Cink to collect the claret jug in a playoff walkover. Watson failed to get up and down from behind Turnberry’s last green and then staggered to a sad, six-stroke defeat in the four-hole playoff.

“It would have been a helluva story, wouldn’t it?” Watson said wistfully. “It wasn’t to be. Yes, I’m very disappointed. It tears at your gut, just like it always does.”

This one tore a little deeper for anyone who witnessed what was almost the most mystifying, age-mocking achievement in sports history. Watson, who finished at 2-under 278, looked to have the event in hand after a two-putt birdie at the 17th hole gave him a one-stroke cushion over Cink. The latter had finished 45 minutes earlier with a 72nd-hole birdie from 15 feet to post a solid closing 69.

But Watson’s birdie at the 17th sent the five-time Open champion to the final tee needing just a par for the jug on the hole he famously birdied en route to nipping Jack Nicklaus in 1977’s “Duel in the Sun.” Watson flushed a hybrid off the tee to the center of the fairway, leaving himself 178 yards to the front of the green, guarded on the front left by a devilishly deep bunker. He chose an 8-iron for the most important approach of the tournament and hit it directly at the pin.

“In retrospect, I might have chosen a 9-iron, but I hit the shot I meant to at the time,” said Watson, who would have become the oldest major champion in history by more than 11 years. “When it was in the air, I said, ‘I like it.’ But it just went too far.”

In the most wicked of links breaks, Watson’s approach hit on the front of the green and rocketed forward, bounding all the way across the putting surface, past the pin and then barely trundling off the steep back ledge. Had the shot been either a feather softer or harder, Watson likely would have lifted the claret jug moments later.

As it was, his ball edged over the mound at the back of the green on nearly its last revolution and then trickled tragically into a wicked lie flush up against the rough lining the grandstand. Another two inches and the result would have been a simple bump-and-run pitch for the greatest links master in history. Instead, Watson chose a putter for the awkward lie, which bedevils all who play the game by inducing excessive topspin.

Predictably, Watson’s putt of 35 feet up the slope and down to the pin zipped 10 feet past the hole, leaving him a testy midrange par putt for the Open. Fate frowned on his effort, and his wobbly putt missed several inches on the high side, leaving him a playoff date with Cink.

In a four-hole aggregate duel (Nos. 5, 6, 17 and 18) that felt more like a funeral procession, Watson looked every minute of his 59 years. Clearly spent by his weeklong stint atop the leader board, Watson played the four holes in 4 over with a dooming double bogey at the 17th. Cink, 36, pounced on the opportunity from the start, with his lead ballooning from one stroke to four when he matched Watson’s rough-wandering double with a two-putt birdie at the 17th.

“I have to be honest: Playing against Tom in the playoff I had mixed feelings because I watched him with admiration all week,” a gracious Cink said after collecting his first major victory after a handful of near-misses. “It was just surreal - not only to win it but to play with Tom Watson. I grew up watching him. And to be part of what he did this week was very special.”

Even the champion seemed to understand that this was Watson’s British Open, even though Cink left Turnberry with the claret jug.

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