July 20, 2009

In History's Grasp

Stewart Cink wins the British Open after Tom Watson's memorable, age-defying run at Turnberry comes up a putt short

Etched in history: Cink earned possession of the claret jug, while old and young stars Watson and low amateur Manassero (right) looked on.

Etched in history: Cink earned possession of the claret jug, while old and young stars Watson and low amateur Manassero (right) looked on.

Here's a Tweet for you:

The acceptance speech by the Champion Golfer of the Year has become depressingly routine—praise the geezer, pass the jug.

This wasn't the Duel in the Sun. As it turns out, time is a lot tougher than Jack Nicklaus. Old Tom Watson missed the early-bird special on claret jugs when he bogeyed Turnberry's 72nd hole to fall to two-under 278 and force a playoff against Stewart Cink who, as it turned out, was as happy as Robert the Bruce to drive a stake through the heart of history. Not that there's anything wrong with that. After all, the way Watson played in the two-man, four-hole aggregate playoff, he would have lost to a caber tosser. Cink, on the other hand, birdied the last two of the four extra holes as the grand illusion of a man about to close out his sixth decade by winning a sixth British Open aged before your eyes like the Picture of Dorian Gray. In the end Watson, who lost the playoff by six strokes, looked as old as the Ailsa Craig, and Stewart the Tweet was king.

Imagine for a moment a young Watson. It's not hard to do. The body language was resurrected for four days at Turnberry, his arms clasped behind him as he surveyed a distant horizon like an admiral on the weather deck of one of her majesty's ships. Or, striding forward against the wind off the Firth of Clyde, his hands thrust deep into his pockets as if they were digging for the warmth of old memories. This was the Watson of yesteryear—a man, it should not be forgotten, who has left his share of victims in his wake, not the least of whom was Nicklaus himself on these very links. But only at Turnberry, the place that holds Watson's heart like no other, could it be broken so cruelly.

Golf's immortals all seem capable of summoning a farewell flash of brilliance. Hogan at Augusta in 1967. Palmer at Oakmont in 1973. Snead at Tanglewood in 1974. And of course, Nicklaus at Augusta in 1986. There's always a wave goodbye. Last year at Royal Birkdale, it was Greg Norman, 53, with his new bride Chris Evert on his arm, flirting shamelessly with the fantasy of youth before Padraig Harrington delivered reality with a 5-wood. This year, in a feat of historic legerdemain, Watson, 59, turned the unthinkable into the probable before our eyes, right up until the moment Cink, 36, a player in his competitive prime, became the instrument exposing the pitiless reality of old nerves and old legs.

Stewart Cink

At first, the final day of the Open's return to Turnberry after 15 years looked like it was going to belong to the Brits, not a pair of Americans. Ross Fisher—whose wife, Joanne, must have been suspended in gravity boots in London to forestall the birth of their first child—went out birdie-birdie to take the lead from Watson, who stumbled anxiously out of the gate. The onset of labor probably began with Fisher's quadruple-bogey 8 on the fifth. Then, Chris Wood, the 21-year-old English lad with a hairstyle similar to the plume on an officer of the Queen's Horse Guard, went out in 32 and added another birdie at the 10th. Back-to-back bogeys on the 13th and 14th were his undoing. And then there was sorrowful Lee Westwood, who bogeyed the 15th and 16th and three-putted the last to suffer a depressingly similar fate to the one he endured at Torrey Pines last year, missing the playoff by one.

It seemed the planets kept jockeying into position for Watson, who was playing steadily if unspectacularly. That, or he was being pursued by a flock of marshmallow chicks. One by one, they all fell away. Retief Goosen, who has been struck by lightning once and the U.S. Open twice, couldn't make a putt. Mathew Goggin, the Tasmanian Devil, hung around until three straight bogeys on the back finished him off. Cink would birdie then bogey, then birdie then bogey. The claret jug was Watson's for the taking.

At the 18th Cink hit a solid 9-iron that stopped 12 feet from the hole. He made the putt to close within one stroke of Watson, who birdied the par-5 17th to reach three under par. Watson positioned his tee shot with a 20-degree hybrid on the 461-yard 18th. All week he'd been clever about getting the ball in play. His downwind 8-iron second barely rolled through the green, up against the short rough. He elected to putt instead of chip, and the ball screamed past the hole. It was eight feet but it might as well have been in Glasgow. Watson missed badly and all the hopes of all of Scotland couldn't put him back together again. He bogeyed the first playoff hole (the fifth), made a miraculous par on the second (the par-3 sixth) after missing far right with his tee shot, then double-bogeyed the third (the par-5 17th) after driving in the far-left hay. All that remained was one last funereal march up the last, the place where before he'd known only festivals.

In the year of the anti-story—be it Angel Cabrera over Kenny Perry at the Masters, Lucas Glover over Phil Mickelson and David Duval in the U.S. Open, or Cink over Watson at Turnberry—the unfortunate reality is the man who has his name engraved in silver is seen as somehow less deserving than the one who tilted at windmills. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Tom Watson

Better known for his tweets (he has more than 500,000 followers on Twitter) than his trophies (he is a six-time winner on the PGA Tour), if anything, Cink was an underachiever, a gifted player of unrealized promise. Like Glover, he had shown a propensity for backing away when it meant the most. The worst came at the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills when, in a hurry to get out of Goosen's way on the 72nd hole, he missed a tiddler that, when Goosen gunched his own seconds later, kept Cink out of the 18-hole playoff. It was understandable and inexcusable. Even though Cink finished a solid T-3 in the 2008 Masters, he booted away lesser events such as the PODS Championship at Innisbrook, and endured the indignity of an 8-and-7 drubbing at the hands of Tiger Woods in the final of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. A stalwart on Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams, Cink knew there was something missing.

After a poor showing in the Players in May, he became determined to go find it. "I just decided then that, 'OK, this isn't working,' " said Cink. "Whatever I'm doing isn't working."

He handled a belly putter better than anyone in the world, but the first thing he did was put it in the garage and return to a conventional model. His swing coach, Butch Harmon, was all for it. "He putted very well with the belly on short putts," said Harmon, "but he struggled in the 12- to 18-foot range. He made the change very easily."

Cink did it with the help of Dr. Morris Pickens, the sport psychologist who also works with Glover. "It wasn't that he was a bad putter, he just got way off course," said Pickens. "He was putting for result instead of putting just to putt it." Cink needed a pre-shot routine. Pickens flew to Atlanta to work with him before the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. They came up with two sets of drills, one for a 45-minute practice session, another for a 75-minute session. They cleaned up the mental, physical and visual parts of his routine. "He's worked on his putting the last two months more than he has in the last five years," Pickens says.

Cink prepped for the Open with a page from Watson's book, playing his way in on Irish links. He stopped for rounds at Lahinch, Ballybunion and Doonbeg. Then, two days before the first round at Turnberry, Harmon noticed Cink was taking the club a tad inside. "He got the width back in about five shots," said Butch. On the way to the first tee Sunday, Harmon told him, "You're playing as well or better than anyone in this tournament, and I want you to believe in that." Pickens' message was simpler: "Keep playing Turnberry." When Cink faced his 12-footer on the 72nd hole that looked, at the time, as if it was going to mean nothing more than a solid second, he didn't do the Tulsa two-step. This time, he never stopped playing until he ran out of holes and Watson had run out of gas.

Stewart Cink

Sunday's tricky winds were in stark contrast to the weather for the first round, which was more suited to Waikiki than the west coast of Scotland. Turnberry would never be more accommodating, which, at least in part, led to a parade of pensioners. What do they say about age and treachery overcoming youth and skill? Anyway, out front with a six-under 64 was 45-year-old Miguel Angel Jiménez, a.k.a. "The Mechanic," who became the first ponytail to lead a major since Mel Gibson won the Revolutionary War, if you don't count John Daly's Mullet Over Crooked Stick back in the 1991 PGA Championship. The cigar-smoking Jiménez said he was channeling his ailing fellow Spaniard, Seve Ballesteros.

The story of the day, however, was old man Watson, who was channeling himself. Having received a good-luck text message from Barbara Nicklaus that apparently somehow reversed the polarity on the space/time continuum, Watson shot the same score, 65, he shot on a sunny Saturday more than 30 years ago at Turnberry when Tom and Jack made "golf" and "rivalry" as inextricably linked as mince and tatties or shepherds and pie. The other ancients hanging about included Mark Calcavecchia, Mark O'Meara and Vijay Singh, all with 67s, and Daly, with a 68, who was otherwise engaged on the undercard in a war of psychedelic pants against Ian Poulter.

Friday, Turnberry posted its Welcome to Scotland signs. It wasn't the worst day of weather they have ever seen on the Ayrshire coast—nothing like the messy wind and rain of the 1986 Turnberry Open—but it was sufficient to do what links golf is supposed to do, which is to utterly expose everyone who's almosting it. This included Woods, whose 71-74 sent the world's No. 1 packing on the weekend for just the second time in a major championship since he turned pro.

This year Woods has laid down a marker in advance of every major. In March, heading into the Masters, he was the strobe-lit Woods of yesteryear, fist pumping into the gloaming at Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill. Before the U.S. Open he was the flawless Woods of the future hitting all 14 fairways Sunday at Jack Nicklaus' Memorial. And coming into the British Open, he was Eldrick the Elder, holding at bay the young Americans, Anthony Kim and Hunter Mahan, to finish off the Slam of the Immortals, interviewing himself as both host and champion at Congressional. Now, however, Woods 0-for-3 in the ones he really wants.

Stewart Cink

At Augusta and Bethpage, the putter undid him. Turnberry was more disturbing. It was the second-consecutive major where Woods was without his swing coach, Hank Haney. The first excused absence gave rise to whispers of a rift between the two, but this was quickly denied by sources in Woods' camp, who said Woods was merely trying to be more self-sufficient. Whatever. At Turnberry, Tiger's course strategy was too conservative. He hit it lousy, flaring his bad shots right, played a six-hole stretch seven over par (including a lost ball), and couldn't save himself with his short game.

Friday's weather was awful early, eased somewhat in the midday, then roared again late in the afternoon. The two leaders, at five under par, were Steve Marino, who played in the worst of the morning, and Watson, who went around in the worst of the afternoon. After the cut, there were only two certainties: Matteo Manassero, the amazing 16-year-old Italian kid who played alongside Watson, would take home the silver medal as low amateur, and his playing partner, 43 years his senior, was a lock for low hip replacement.

The Saturday and Sunday winds were Turnberry's most diabolical. With westerly breezes blowing in off the Firth of Clyde, 11 of the holes played, to varying degrees, with a treacherous crosswind, which shrank the fairways and massively expanded the threat of the bunkers and the tall stuff. After falling behind briefly Saturday, Old Tom holed a massive putt on the 16th for the second straight day, then reached the 17th in two and two-putted for the birdie that put him alone at the top at four under par. He was joined in red figures by Goggin, Fisher, Westwood, Goosen and the hairless Americans, Cink and Jim Furyk. There was the hint of history in the air, and the fear it might all end badly once again. Not with a bang, not even a whimper. Just a tweet.