TURNBERRY, SCOTLAND — That pristine ogre known as golf has struck again, choosing a gorgeous setting by the Irish Sea to unleash its full and singular meanness upon a cherished 59-year-old man.
It enticed him for four days of enchantment. It ushered him to the 72nd hole with a one-shot lead in a British Open and a chance to broaden earthly possibility. It brought Tom Watson down that No. 18 fairway to deeply felt applause, and then it threw in a blaring roar when his well-struck eight-iron approach smacked down and bounded onto the green.
Then, as that ball pranced across the green on Turnberry's storied No. 18, golf ushered Watson to the very brink of becoming by 11 years the oldest man to win a major tournament, before going and dumping him into untold regret and reissuing an ancient lesson.
Never underestimate its capacity for savagery.
One last, cruel rotation -- "an inch," as playing partner Matthew Goggin saw it -- sent the ball teetering off the back of the green and down into the collar between two cuts of fringe. It sent Watson toward a whiplash bogey, a 72-hole score of two-under 278 and a four-hole playoff he would lose comprehensively to Stewart Cink, the sudden contender who won his first major title at 36. It sent Watson's face from beaming utterly toward utterly crestfallen.
From the man to watch across four days of 60-foot birdies and precise swings and savvy management, Watson became unwatchable in the playoff as his body went drained and his shots went awry. Golf took him from the brink of mirth to sitting around uttering quotations like, "It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn't it," and "The dream almost came true," and, to deflated reporters, "Hey, this ain't a funeral, you know!"
"It tears at your gut, as it always has torn at my gut," the five-time British Open champion said. "It's not easy to take."
As Cink went par-par-birdie-birdie in the playoff while Watson went bogey-par-double bogey-bogey, this beguiling sport even cast the affable Cink as some sort of antagonist even as he gained the playoff by withstanding a meandering back nine and becoming the only player among the top 26 finishers to birdie No. 18, rolling in a 12-footer to exemplify his reconstructed putting stroke.
"I can understand the mystique that came really close to developing here, and the story," said Cink, who has top-three finishes in all four majors and won on his 49th major try. "But in the end, you know, it's a tournament to see who lasts the longest. . . . It's a survival test, and I don't know what else to say. I don't feel ashamed. I don't feel disappointed. I'm pleased as punch that I've won, and also very proud of the way Tom Watson played."
Cink had won after never leading on a day when Watson led, and Ross Fisher led, and Lee Westwood led, and Watson led again, and it would be left to select the most merciless part of an early evening on the west coast of Scotland.
Maybe it would be that the source of future nightmares to come would happen on the same hole officially named "Duel In The Sun" to extol Watson's famous win over Jack Nicklaus here in 1977. Maybe it could be that Watson had played the hole in par-birdie-par through the week, even making that 60-foot putt from the fringe that wrought his joyous one-kick "Scottish jig" on Friday. Maybe it would be that his drive and approach on No. 18 came off the club so classically true that Goggin said, "He hit two great shots and was really unlucky to make a bogey."
It could be that one of the all-time famous chippers chose a putter from that collar below the green and, if he could have it back, "I wouldn't have hit the putter as hard." Or it could be that the nine-foot par putt he left himself looked as if it had buzzards circling overhead from the moment he struck it, meandering off short and to the right as the crowd groaned.
"I made one bogey that I shouldn't have made," he summarized wistfully.
Surely, though, golf's ultimate turn of viciousness had to be that it took Watson, after four days of energy and vitality from one just seven weeks shy of 60, and then it left him out there for four last holes through which he suddenly looked absolutely 59 and completely sapped.
After all that kismet through the week, all those classic swings with what Goggin called Watson's "great, tumbling ball flight," it somehow closed with a ghoulish series. It had Watson's "chubby five-iron" on the first playoff hole, No. 5; Watson getting "stuck" with a hybrid and groaning audibly off the tee on the second, No. 6; Watson's drive on the third playoff hole, No. 17, hurrying left in such a sickly manner that Watson said, "My legs didn't work at the drive at 17.
"The swing just wasn't, you know, it just wasn't quite there," he said.