A victory for reality over fantasy

Published : Jul 25, 2009 00:00 IST

Stewart Cink... the triumph tastes so sweet.-PICS:AP
Stewart Cink... the triumph tastes so sweet.-PICS:AP

Stewart Cink... the triumph tastes so sweet.-PICS:AP

Stewart Cink sinks Tom Watson to win the title in a play-off as a missed putt at last costs the 59-year-old the title. By Lawrence Donegan.

On a day of poetry, prose had the final word when the U.S. Ryder Cup player Stewart Cink edged out the U.S. legend Tom Watson in a play-off to win the 2009 British Open Championship. It was a victory for reality over fantasy or, to put it another way, it was a crushing disappointment for those who prefer their sporting occasions steeped in romance.

“It would have been a hell of a story, a wonderful story. But it wasn’t to be and it tears at your gut just like it always has,” the runner-up said. “Hey, it’s not a funeral.” Maybe not, but it sure as hell felt like it. Of course hearty congratulations went to the winner, but the heart itself went out to the man who came up short.

Poor, poor Watson, who has never asked for anyone’s sympathy but who will have it pressed upon him for ever more. The 59-year-old, bidding to become the oldest man to win a major championship, stood on the 72nd green of regulation play facing an eight-foot putt to tear up the history books. Alas he saved his worst shot of the week for that tumultuous moment, dribbling his effort short and right of the cup. That dropped him into a four-hole play-off against a man 23 years younger and a whole lot fitter.

Those who feared the worst for Watson quickly had their fears confirmed as he failed to get up and down from the greenside bunker at the 5th and fell a shot behind. A lovely par putt on the 6th shored up his hopes but a weary drive on the 17th, followed by a couple of hacks out of the rough and a double bogey, laid them to rest. Cink now had a four-shot advantage. Formality demanded that the pair play the 18th hole but by then the engraver was already at work, although pedants might care to note that the new champion hit a superb approach shot, leaving his ball just a couple of feet from the cup.

He made a birdie, doffed his cap to the galleries and embraced the man he had just vanquished. It was a first major victory for Cink, who has been knocking around the upper echelons of the game for a few years now.

A great player, he is also a good guy, as he showed afterwards in accepting that while his was a great personal triumph, it was also something of a letdown for those looking on, willing Watson to conclude his incredible journey.

“I have been the underdog before, the guy that no one is rooting for, and that is OK,” he said, with a smile. “Maybe that will change now.”

Maybe it will as thoughts of Watson’s disappointment fade, to be replaced by memories of a wonderful performance. The American, who had won five Opens, the last at Royal Birkdale in 1983, started the week as a 1,500-1 outsider. He was tied for second after day one and led at the end of days two and three. Even then, there were doubts that he would hold up during the final round; doubts that did not diminish when he made bogey at two of his opening three holes.

Behind him hopes surged and fell like the sea beyond. When the day began there were 26 players within six shots of the leader, all entitled to believe they could win, and that number had increased by lunchtime as Turnberry’s true character began to exert itself.

Ernie Els and Justin Leonard, who started almost three hours ahead of the leaders, came from nowhere to finish in a tie for eighth.

The South African and the American are former winners of this championship so it was hardly a surprise. The same could not be said of young Chris Wood, a nascent professional whose main claim to fame was his effort as an amateur in last year’s Open at Birkdale, where he finished fifth. Since then he has carved out a nice run on the European Tour but it is one thing to knock off a top-10 at the South African Open, quite another to make a serious charge at golf’s greatest prize.

Expectations, especially the lack of them, can often be a golfer’s best friend and the 22-year-old Englishman certainly had that in his favour. He clearly has a flair for this style of golf, too, nursing his ball around the front nine in 32 shots — better than anyone else. A birdie at the 10th fixed his place inside the top 10 and his position rose as the afternoon progressed. In the end he tied for third.

For that he could thank the likes of Ross Fisher, who briefly held a three-shot lead before running up a quadruple bogey on the 5th, and Jim Furyk, the fancied American who made bogey at two of his first three holes. Eventually, the competition was distilled into its purest form.

As always on such occasions the lead, and the pressure that comes with it, was passed around with alarming regularity as Watson, then Fisher, then Watson, then Lee Westwood, then Mathew Goggin and, finally, Cink, all glimpsed glory. Of those, Westwood was in first place for the longest period, assuming the mantle when he holed a 20-footer on the 7th hole for an eagle. The Englishman has mined a wonderful seam of form in recent weeks and he did it again for almost the entirety of his round on the final day. Only as the end approached did he falter, dropping shots at the 15th and 16th.

Even then the Englishman would have won the tournament with a birdie on the last. Instead, he made a three-putt bogey. What a contrast with Cink, who had moments before rolled in a 20-footer for birdie and a place in the play-off.

“That was the most crucial putt of my life,” he said, cradling the Claret Jug. A major understatement from the new major champion.

Italy’s Matteo Manassero, 16, won the silver medal as the leading amateur. He capped an extraordinary week by shooting a one-under-par 69 in the final round.

Final Placings

The results after the final day’s play at the British Open in Turnberry.

278: Stewart Cink (U.S.) 66-72-71-69; Tom Watson (U.S.) 65-70-71-72.

(Cink won the four-hole play-off by six strokes).

279: Chris Wood (Eng) 70-70-72-67; Lee Westwood (Eng) 68-70-70-71.

280: Luke Donald (Eng) 71-72-70-67; Retief Goosen (SA) 67-70-71-72; Mathew Goggin (Aus) 66-72-69-73.

281: Soren Hansen (Den) 68-72-74-67; Justin Leonard (U.S.) 70-70-73-68; Ernie Els (SA) 69-72-72-68; Thomas Aiken (SA) 71-72-69-69; Richard S. Johnson (Swe) 70-72-69-70.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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