The spirits are with me, Tom Watson told us, over and over again. He didn't say with the mania of a zealot, or the hollow tone of a man throwing verbal Hail Marys. His eyes were clear. His gap-toothed grin would give way to a tight-lipped smile of confidence and confident nod when he said it. The Tom Watson smile. Of course we believed.
The spirits are with me, he would say, and would say so with such calm, that his choice of words – "serene" – seemed the best of them all. The golf swing was unchanged since 1977, right down to the double waggle. The rhythm of his move was as reassuring as the lighthouse by Ailsa Craig, the reverse "C" in his finish as picturesque as a sunset on the Firth of Clyde.
When he said this about the spirits, you didn't know if he meant the feel of the Scottish wind at his back, or his faith in a religious deity, or the memory of his dear, departed friend and caddie, Bruce Edwards, whispering reads into his ear. Maybe it was all those and more. He didn't need to explain.
That this once-freckled, now-weathered face was doing all this and saying all this at Turnberry – whose Gaelic name translates to "Pebble Beach, eat your heart out" – made it all too easy to believe that, yes, the spirits were with this man who, two months shy of 60, reveres the game in its birthplace like no American ever has. If Ben Hogan was "The Wee Ice Mon," Tom Watson is "The Wee Mon of Warmth and Respect," the feelings mutual all the while, five claret jugs deep.
And so, in the aftermath, then, the crushing aftermath, we are only left to ask: What kind of spirits gives us that kind of ending?
How do we reconcile a mind-blowing mystical wave of emotion leaving us flat and empty and stripped bare?
How can it be that the spirits told Tom Watson: No, no. Not in the end. In the end it will be Stewart Cink. Your approach on the 72nd hole will ride our wind too far. Your third will be nervy and run past the hole. And your par try will be everything you weren't all week – it will lack conviction, and belief. It will have none of the magic dust we've sprinkled on you most of your life, since "The Duel in the Sun" with Jack in 1977, and for 71 and one-half holes in the year 2009.
A simple par – Old Man Par – would have gifted the world with perhaps its most improbable sports story ever. The search for perspective is almost impossible.
Watson's last major was the 1983 British Open at Birkdale. So, would Watson winning at Turnberry be like, what, Bjorn Borg coming back to win Wimbledon in 2009? Maybe. The mind reels at the thought of Borg kissing the trophy at Wimbledon in 2009 while Roger Federer – tennis' Tiger Woods – applauds, silver medal in hand. Borg won his last major at the 1981 U.S. Open. But Watson plays golf regularly, and Borg has not played tennis since his retirement in 1983, undermining the thought.
Since Watson won at Turnberry in 1977, the mind turns to the sports world then. Would Watson winning in '09 be like Reggie Jackson coming out of retirement and leading the Yankees to another World Series? Jackson is 63 and hasn't played ball since 1987, so again, Watson's regular playing schedule negates that analogy.
Perhaps golf's singular nature as a game for a lifetime renders all comparisons to other sports – Joe Montana quarterbacking the 49ers to a Super Bowl in 2010? – irrelevant. Comparisons are always best kept within eras and sports, so when we consider that Watson would be the oldest winner of a major by over a decade – Julius Boros at age 48, in 1968 – you get the sense of the massive historical stakes. To charge into a major championship field populated by Woods, Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, Paul Casey, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Vijay Singh and Geoff Ogilvy, among others, and to post a 72-hole score bettered by nobody speaks to a mastery of the golf swing, an ownership of the moment, and a sort of fearlessness that lingers to inspire.
Watson at Turnberry in '09 has already rendered Greg Norman's '08 run at Birkdale to the dustbin of runner-up status. Not only is Watson six years older, but Norman faded on the Sunday at Birkdale, shooting 77. Watson, incredibly, stood on the 72nd tee box with the lead.
And on another level, a Watson win might well have turned Jack's 1986 Masters, at 46, into history's equivalent of the Valero Texas Open.
So how could it end the way it did? Why, when we needed them most, did the spirits duck out to hit the fish and chips stand?
In golf's all-time list of heartbreak, "Watson at Turnberry, '09" stands in a class all its own. "Norman at the Masters, '96" is a testament to a man who could rarely summon his best at majors when he needed it. "Van de Velde at Carnoustie, '99" is more tragicomedy than anything else. "Mickelson at Any U.S. Open" you'd file next to the "Norman-Augusta" file.
No, Tom Watson, age 59, nine months off hip replacement surgery, stalking the Ayrshire coast is its own thing. The 1977 Turnberry video ABC showed of Watson, 32 years younger, his back even more limber, his head sporting thick tufts of auburn hair, 1970s lime green plaid pants blazing, is part of why we all felt like crying, I'd imagine. In the end, time slips past us, and we are not as young as we once were, and the thought of recapturing the past, impossibility, made it possible to weep with joy.
And then he missed that putt and then the playoff went badly, and then it ended, and Tom Watson was runner-up. He said afterward that he still felt the spirituality, that the walk up 18 in regulation, awash in those Scottish cheers, was the best of all, that it made him feel "human." He said that when it's all said and done, and he's gone, up there with Bruce Edwards, telling stories about the '09 British Open, he hopes we all say: "That Watson, he was a helluva golfer."
He also said the whole thing ripped his gut out.
Where were the spirits then, when we needed them most?
Sometimes, there are no answers.
Scorecard of the week
• 66-72-71-69 – 278, 2-under, tie-1st, Stewart Cink, winner of the 138th British Open Championship in a playoff.
There are times when you have to yield the floor to the smarter and funnier guys in the room. And with that, I turn the column over to the Ancient Twitterer, Dan Jenkins, who tweeted upon the conclusion of regulation: "If he wins the playoff against Watson, Cink has a chance to become the most hated man in the world."
Never thought this sentence would pass my laptop but – Dan Jenkins, greatest Twitterer ever?
Poor Stewie Cink. Like Jenkins, he's a tweeter, and has shown his followers what those of us in the golf press tent have known for years: Cink is a gracious, funny, self-deprecating, gentlemanly player who is a worthy addition to the list of major champions, nothing close to a fluke. He's a constant contender, and a Ryder Cup mainstay. Shoot, he should have won a U.S. Open at Southern Hills in 2001, but 24 inches is a long way to putt when you're not ready to be a champion quite yet.
It's too bad that Cink's maiden had to come at the expense of the conclusion to Watson's epic poem. He joins the list of semi-obscure trivia answers like "Paul Lawrie" (Question: Who won when Jean van de Velde melted down?), "Finland" (Question: Who did the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team play in the gold medal final after beating Russia in the semis?) and "Matt Bahr" (Question: Who kicked the New York Giants' winning FG before Scott Norwood missed for the Bills in Super Bowl XXV?).
Funny, but when Cink made that clutch birdie putt on the 72nd hole and got into the barn at 2 under, thus sparing us the sight of Auggie from the BBC "Office"-lookalike Chris Wood kissing the claret jug (obscure reference, yes, but I'll stick with it, readers), I didn't think it would be enough. He kissed his golf ball, the sure sign that he thought some magic had just happened. Turns out he was right. I was still under the spell of Watson, knowing he could make par on 18. Turns out I was wrong.
So congratulations, Stewart Cink. Just understand that the house band at your celebration party will likely be "Captain Bringdown and the Buzzkills," playing the hits.
Broadcast moment of the week
• "He's going to make this and win the British Open." – ABC's Andy North, close friend of Watson, seconds before Watson's par try on 18.
There were so many BMOWs to choose from this week, whether it was Tom Weiskopf's solemn "Quad … snowman … eight … unfortunate" requiem for Ross Fisher's fifth hole on Sunday; or the sight of dozens and dozens of hoi polloi on No. 10 searching for Tiger Woods' lost golf ball on Friday en route to his missed cut; or the ego smackdown between Rick Reilly and Peter Alliss, after Alliss riffed on Reilly's white suit on Saturday, wondering aloud if Neil Sedaka had entered the room, or Reilly's retort about Alliss' short-sleeve/tie combo, looking like a high school science teacher. Good week for BMOWs.
(Side note: Alliss did come back Sunday with the short sleeves and NO tie, visually admitting that Reilly had gotten into his head a little.)
At any rate, North gets the nod because it seemed like such a stunning comment. Part of the whole Watson ride was the disbelief everybody felt – millions of us watching at home, bewildered scribes in the press tent, analysts like Paul Azinger and Judy Rankin, who freely commented on Watson's sometimes tentative putting stroke at key times – at what we were seeing. Part of the bargain was, nobody acted like it was a fait accompli that Watson would do this. Instead, we all kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and when it never did, we sort of treated the whole thing like a no-hitter. Tom Watson winning the British Open? It was so remarkably astounding to think it, nobody came out and said it.
That's why North's words hung in the air, heavy and shocking. Did he just say that? I know North said it to put positive energy in the air for his good buddy, but I had the gnawing feeling, for a fleeting second, that he just jinxed the whole thing. Shoot!
Mulligan of the week
• The obvious choice, of course, is Watson's 71st stroke, the 9-foot par putt at which he made a weak pass.
Let's go one step earlier, however. After hitting that tee shot on 18 so pure, just another in a four-day parade of stunningly good tee shots from Watson, he had the claret jug in his mitts. An 8-iron to the green, a two-putt, and we could all commence bawling.
But wait. Eight iron? With his adrenaline pumping and the wind behind him, Watson thought about a 9-iron, but stayed with 8 … and there it went, bounding through the green, to the back fringe, where an up-and-down suddenly became enough to turn all of our stomachs upside down.
Let's use some of that time travel stuff they do in another ABC venture – the hit show "Lost" – and go back to that lie in the fairway. As a fan of sports history, one of us needs to lift up the gallery rope, charge out to the fairway, tackle Watson before he makes his swing with the 8-iron, all the while shouting out "HIT NINE, TOM, HIT NINE!" and … give that man a mulligan.
Where do we go from here?
• Who cares? The next week will be spent reflecting on Turnberry, '09. Commence reflecting, my friends. And bring a tissue.
- Tom Watson
- Stewart Cink