Maybe only a Yellow Jacket could have held back the tide of history. Maybe only someone who played at Georgia Tech, which is an underdog in its own state, could have thumbed his nose at the hopes of a globe of golf watchers. Maybe Stewart Cink, who lives in Duluth, was the exact right man to do the exact wrong thing.
The sporting world wanted Tom Watson to win the British Open, and he came as close as you could and not win. One modest putt on the 72nd hole and he’d have lapped what Jack Nicklaus did at Augusta in 1986. The famous Golden Bear comeback Masters came at age 46. On this Sunday in Scotland, Watson was 46 days short of his 60th birthday.
Watson was once the greatest player in the world, but his last major title came in 1983. The 1983 National League Most Valuable Player was Dale Murphy of the Atlanta Braves, who retired from baseball in 1993. The 1983 AL MVP was Cal Ripken Jr., and even the iron man of his sport stopped playing in 2001.
Twenty-six years after the last shining moment, Watson had an eight-foot putt to become the oldest man ever to win a major, to stand as the beacon for all among us who hold AARP cards. This Watson looked much the same as the man we recalled — just a few more lines across the Midwestern face — but he had changed.
He’d famously stopped drinking a decade ago, and shortly thereafter he’d gotten divorced. And then he’d remarried and whiled away his time in the obscurity of the Legends Tour while we devoted our Sundays to watching Tiger. And we’d forgotten Tom Watson still owned a set of clubs.
And now: Eight feet to win the Open Championship. Eight feet to call back the years. Eight feet too far.
Watson struck a no-chancer, an old man’s putt. And suddenly he was in a playoff with Cink, who was once considered the Next Big Thing but who had won only five tournaments in 14 years as a professional. The man who won his first British Open when Stewart Cink was 2 years old.
Cink is a Tech man, a Thrashers fan, a Twitter icon with 560,000 followers. (”I don’t twit or tweet,” Watson told reporters this week.) From Scotland, Cink — he’s @stewartcink — offered this:
“Pretty sure I have swine flu. I thought if you like BBQ as much as I do, that your antibodies would be built up against it!”
Saturday night: “This vending machine at T’berry locker room can meet ANY need that arises. 2nd to last one is condoms.”
Sunday morning: “Getting ready for todays round. Very good exercise facility on European Tour. Raining hard at the moment but looks generally bright outside.”
Scarcely had Watson’s eight-footer gone wide right when Jason Sobel of ESPN.com posted this on his live blog: “Heard in the press room: ‘Stewart Cink is about to be the most hated man in the universe.’ ”
But the playoff scarcely had any time for any clean old-fashioned hate to foment. Watson was out of it from the first of the four holes. He lost by six strokes. A Tech man had won the British Open, but it was an Open that, outside Atlanta, won’t be remembered for its champion.
As Cink told ABC: “I have such an admiration for Tom … I was a little reluctant to be pitted against him.” But then this: “I’m elated I won.”
And here were Watson’s first words to reporters in the press tent: “Would’ve been a hell of a story, wouldn’t it? But it wasn’t to be.”