Cink Rises in Playoff, Sinks Watson’s Hopes
On an ancient stage hard by the craggy Ayrshire coast, Stewart Cink - always quick with an autograph or an interview - became a villain.
With Tom Watson making an implausible march against Father Time and soaking in the appreciation of adoring galleries as he tried to author perhaps the greatest story in golf, Cink ruined the fairy-tale ending with a stirring finish of his own.
In the fading light by the Firth of Clyde, Cink first canned a 15-foot birdie on the 72nd hole that forced a playoff when Watson missed an 8-foot par putt on the same hole, then crushed his deflated foe as Watson "hit one bad shot after another" in a four-hole playoff. Instead of Watson winning his sixth British Open, Cink rode away with the 17-inch silver beauty known as the Claret Jug.
"The dream almost came true," Watson said.
Finishing regulation play tied with Watson at 2-under-par 278 on a course affectionately known as "Old Lady," Cink grabbed his first major championship with a six-shot win in the playoff highlighted by birdies on the final two holes.
"I've played plenty of times with Tiger (Woods) and heard the Tiger roars. I'm usually the guy that the crowd, while they appreciate me, they're not behind me 100% of the way," said Cink, a steady presence on the PGA Tour with six career titles. "That's the sort of role I've been cast into for my whole career. And, hey, that's not the worst. It's OK.
"I can understand the mystique and the story that came really close to developing here. But in the end it's a tournament to see who lasts the longest. It's a survival test out there.
"I don't feel ashamed. I don't feel disappointed that I won."
Defeat 'tears at your gut'
Watson, less than a year removed from having his left hip replaced, two months shy of turning 60 and three years from qualifying for Social Security, played like the Watson of old. Although he signed on to work as an ABC-TV commentator for the tournament, Watson began thinking during his practice rounds that he could contend - despite the 500-1 odds against him in the betting shops at the start of the week and his world ranking of 1,374. The winner of five Opens - including one here on the Ailsa Course in his epic "Duel in the Sun" against Jack Nicklaus in 1977 when he shot 65-65 to his rival's 65-66 on the weekend - knew he had a chance.
He flashed his trademark grin, braved the harsh elements and used his experience in links golf to subdue his younger rivals for 71 holes with superior ball-striking and clutch putting. But on the verge of becoming the oldest player, by 11 years, to win a major championship, Watson hit an 8-iron on the 72nd hole that trickled over the green, and he failed to get up-and-down.
Then his swing broke down.
"This ain't a funeral, you know," Watson told the news media after the playoff. "It would have been a hell of a story. 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. I put myself in position to win, just didn't do it in the last hole. Stewart did what he had to do."
Woods did not, as the world's No. 1 player missed the cut for the second time in a major.
England's Lee Westwood, trying to be his country's first Open winner since Nick Faldo in 1992, made bogey on the 15th, 16th and 18th holes to miss the playoff by one.
And Ross Fisher, who said all week that he would leave if his wife, Jo, went into labor with their first child, took a two-stroke lead into the final round before a quadruple-bogey 8 on the fifth hole sent him tumbling to a tie for 13th.
But the biggest story for most of the week was Watson, who tugged at hearts in the gallery and the locker room. He also produced tears that reached all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to Florida, where Nicklaus, 69, said on his website he shed a tear or two as Watson assumed possession of the 54-hole lead.
"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," said Watson, who will play in his last Open next year at St. Andrews - unless he wins it. "It helped me along. It's Turnberry. Great memories here. This would have been a great memory.
"It was fun to be in the mix of it again and having the kids who are my kids' age just look up at you and say, 'All right, nice going. You can still play.' When all is said and done, 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.'"
Last man standing
One of them already has said that - Cink, who did not move to the top of the leaderboard until he rolled in his birdie putt on the 72nd hole. The 36-year-old, whose previous best finish in the Open was a tie for sixth in 2007, overhauled his putting stroke this season, even shedding the long putter that was his longtime pal. He said going to the conventional-size putter started to pay off in recent weeks.
In the week preceding the Open, a family vacation to Ireland with his wife, Lisa, and two sons paid dividends, too. Playing some of the toughest courses in the United Kingdom, including Ballybunion and Dunvegan, Cink got reacquainted with links golf. Although he said he didn't break par, he got used to the high winds, cooler temperatures and unique demands, which call for players to use the ground as much as the air.
"For some reason, I just believed all week that I had something good," Cink said. "My swing felt great. I was hitting the ball solidly. And I just felt so calm.
"I've been working really hard the last two or three months on my putting and my whole mental approach. When you're having a solid career and you go and just make massive changes, it's a leap of faith to some extent."
His conviction was backed by his wife, swing coach Butch Harmon and sports psychologist Morris Pickens.
"I trusted myself that I would be able to transform myself into a new type of golfer. And that transformation, I guess with this Claret Jug in my hand, it's now complete," Cink said. "And the journey is not over. But as far as whether it works, I think I'm a believer now."
And a survivor, a word he used in his news conferences. Born two years before Watson won his first Open in 1975 at Carnoustie, Cink outlasted a tough course and a tough old guy.
"Whether Tom was 59 or 29, he was one of the field," Cink said. "I'm just filled with pride and honor.
"Having outlasted this field on this golf course with the way the weather tried to beat us down the last three days, it's something that I'll never forget.
"It's great to be the one left."