Cink won, but the rest of us lost with Watson

It was with heavy heart and moist eyes that I watched the playoff for the 138th Open Championship.

It might have been one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen in sports.

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By the time Tom Watson, his legs shot, butchered the third playoff hole — handing the Claret Jug to Stewart Cink — and then sent his tee shot on the final hole sailing into the stands, I wanted to run out onto the Turnberry links, throw down a white towel and whisk him away.

It was over and everyone knew it and Tom Watson didn’t deserve to have to endure another moment of humiliation.

Those four holes will rank in the annals of sporting cruelty along with leaving Willie Mays in center field when he could no longer shag a fly ball, letting Joe Namath heave interceptions for the Rams or, worst of all, standing by while the great Ali was pummeled by unworthy hacks like Trevor Berbick.

This was, of course, not the way it was supposed to end.

Thomas Sturges Watson was to author a real-life fairytale and the greatest story in golf — a 59-year-old winning a sixth British Open and his first major since 1983. A story so immense it has no equal.

And in doing so, he was to single-handedly prove to us that the years can not always weary our heroes.

That despite their weathered brows and sagging skin, their failing eyesight and the atrophy of those once-toned muscles, it’s the heart of the champion which beats within which truly separates them.

And so when Watson strode to the 72nd green through the wind and sunshine of a pleasant Sunday on the Scottish coast, standing on the precipice of sporting immortality, by God, he was walking for all of us.

For he was refusing to agree with the natural laws of this universe.

He had fought with the heart of a lion to be there, holding a one-stroke lead with a hole to play and needing just a par to make history.

Throughout this most unforgettable of weeks, he’d remembered the man he used to be, resurrecting the champion who’d won the famous Duel in the Sun on these beautiful acres 32 years ago against the mighty Jack Nicklaus.

When his eight iron hit the 72nd green, immortality was to have become a formality. Two putts to win.

And then, the angel which had been on Watson’s shoulder for four days suddenly deserted him.

Somehow, Watson’s ball kept rolling. His playing partner, Australian Matthew Goggin, said later he thought Watson had hit “a perfect shot.”

But had he, for once, misjudged the weight? He’d been so good for four days, relying on guile and wisdom and memories, in playing a style of golf which can be so treacherous.

His ball wouldn’t stop. It scurried past the hole, then trickled over the bank at the back of the green. It came to rest in a clump of grass. A few inches closer, and he could’ve comfortably two putted, Goggin guessed. A few inches longer, and Watson could’ve chipped it close from a better lie.

And that’s when Tom Watson lost his nerve. That’s when he betrayed his age and the long years it’s been since he’d been a golfer capable of winning majors.

Watson chose to putt the ball. Once the greatest of chippers in his heyday, in his moment of truth, he put his trust in the one club which prematurely ended his golden years.

As it was, he hit the putter too firmly. It went eight feet by, to the left of the hole. Everyone gasped. Eight feet to immortality was eight feet too much. “Made a lousy putt,” Watson later bemoaned.

The playoff against Cink, who through no fault of his own was the villain of the piece, was a nightmare.

With Cink — who’d made a remarkable birdie on the last hole to get to two-under par — in the greenside bunker on the first playoff hole, Watson from the middle of the fairway hit a fat five iron into another trap.

Cink saved par while Watson couldn’t. On the next, Watson made a miraculous up-and-down after the most wayward shot he’d hit all day, but Cink retained his one-shot advantage.

The third hole was a disaster; Watson’s legs had given out. He made a double bogey on a par five he’d birdied an hour or so before. Cink made a two-putt four, then birdied the last for good measure as Watson flailed around, scraping a bogey.

“The playoff was just one bad shot after another,” Watson said, “I didn’t give (Cink) much competition.”

It was obvious, given the polite but lukewarm reception for Cink, that everyone had really come to see Watson achieve this most impossible of dreams.

And while it was a great disappointment for us, spare a thought for Watson himself.

We will return to our lives, but he will be haunted by the myriad ways it could’ve been different for the rest of his.

“In retrospect, I probably would have hit a 9 iron rather than an 8 iron (into the last hole),” he said during an emotional news conference, “I was thinking 9, but I said, ‘I’ll hit 8’, and I caught it just the way I wanted to, and sure enough, it went too far.”

“I chose to putt it from the short rough there. I just felt like I had a better chance to get it close, and I looked at that upslope, looked like there was some grain in there, so I decided I was going to make sure I wasn’t going to leave it short and sure, I gunned it on by and made a lousy putt.”

During his emotional news conference — which ended with a standing ovation to the man they once dubbed the King of Scotland — Watson struggled to maintain his composure.

“It would’ve been a hell of a story, wouldn’t it? It wasn’t to be and, yes, it’s a great disappointment. It tears at your gut, as it always has torn at my gut. It’s not easy to take.”

I won’t soon forget what happened here this week. And I won’t soon forget the dignity with which Tom Watson accepted this cruelest of fates.

And I want to assure him that his last wish as he left Turnberry will, without a shadow of a doubt, be fulfilled.

“When all is said and done,” he said, “One of the things I hope that will come out of my life is that my peers will say, you know, that Watson, he was a hell of a golfer.”