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July 27, 2009
Even though he let the British Open title slip from his grasp, Tom Watson, 59 years young, captivated the golf world for four days and showed you can win for losing
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July 27, 2009


Even though he let the British Open title slip from his grasp, Tom Watson, 59 years young, captivated the golf world for four days and showed you can win for losing

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This is what it's all about: losing. Really. You're going to win some and lose more. That was the point of last week's British Open at Turnberry. Everyone paid more attention to the loser than the winner, right? The loser, an old man—nearly 60!—lost with class and heart and serenity and tired legs. He tried to turn back time. It was a gallant effort, and he almost pulled it off.

True, somebody won on Sunday. Somebody always wins, and the newest name on the claret jug belongs to 36-year-old Stewart Cink, a native son of Huntsville, Ala., with a half-million tweeps following his Twitter page and a long, elegant, Georgia Tech--honed swing. His shaved head covered by a Kermit-green hat, and wearing bright white pants out of a Marine Corps recruiting ad, he played a wild final nine holes, with only two pars but a closing birdie that got him a spot in a playoff with Tom Watson, a 59-year-old Hall of Famer with an artificial left hip, five British Open titles and an honorary guest bed in a million Scottish homes. In the four-hole playoff Cink overwhelmed the wee mon, two under to four over. Congratulations, Mr. Cink. You won your first major. Maybe you'll win others. You're a bright, considerate man with serious talent. You earned it.

In victory Cink thanked his caddie, his swing coach, his junior-golf teacher, his wife, his two boys, his Savior. He gave a heartfelt shout-out to Watson too. Cink most likely couldn't remember Watson in his early prime. Little Stewie was four when Watson won his epic Duel in the Sun at Turnberry in 1977 over Jack Nicklaus. But the new winner is well familiar with the Watson legend: the handful of Opens, the two green jackets from Augusta, the U.S. Open he stole from Nicklaus in '82 at Pebble Beach, the winning Ryder Cup captaincy in '93.

On Sunday at Turnberry, the Duel in the Wind was at first about the promise of sporting history, and later about defeat. There was something gorgeous and sad and exhilarating about Watson's play and finish, with his wife, Hilary, his grown kids, Meg and Michael, and close friends watching in person or on TV. Watson had one cast left, and he had the fish hooked but could not reel it in. The old man and the seaside links.

Oh, he'll win Senior events, and maybe he'll even contend next year when the Open returns to St. Andrews, although he's already saying he won't, not if the wind blows out of the west. He says he can't play the course in that wind. He's a hyperrealist.

When it was over, a hundred or more reporters gathered solemnly in a white tent and listened to Watson open the session by saying, "This ain't a funeral, you know?" He laughed, and everybody else did with him.

Still. All Watson needed was a par on the last to become, by 11 years, the oldest winner of one of golf's four major championships. If he had shot 277 instead of 278, he would have won his ninth major and tied Harry Vardon, a mustachioed Englishman born in 1870, with a record six British Open titles. In the Age of Tiger, how can a largely retired golfer, seven weeks short of 60, grow his legend? Watson did. He said, "One of the things I want out of life is for my peers to say, 'That Watson, he was a hell of a golfer.'" His peers have been saying that for decades. From here on out, they'll be saying it even more.

Tiger Woods likes to say "second sucks," and he acts as if he means it. When Steve Williams, Tiger's caddie, implored Woods to hit a provisional ball after a horrid way-right shot off the 10th tee last Friday, Tiger kept walking and muttered, "F--- it," before finally making a U-turn.

Two decades earlier, when Watson nipped Nicklaus at Turnberry, the two walked off the final green arm-in-arm, the winner and the loser. Golf never looked better. When Sunday's playoff was over, Watson kept grace alive. There was his long handshake with Cink, which came only after Watson allowed the champ time to acknowledge the applause and savor the moment. There was his fifth straight session in the press tent, where, his voice hoarse after a long day in the wind and the sun, he offered no excuses. Not his age, not his man-made hip, not his infrequent play. Of his poor putt out of fluffy rough from behind the 72nd green, he said, "I gunned it." Of his ensuing 10-footer for par that would have won him the title, he said, "Made a lousy putt." Asked if he ran out of gas in the playoff, he replied, "It looked like it, didn't it?" Congratulations, Tom. You're what it's all about.

He's the same as he ever was, or better.

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