Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Champion Cink a real party pooper

It has to be the biggest anti-climax in golfing history — like Neil Armstrong falling down the steps of the lunar module and breaking his leg.

Tom Watson was one, measly eight foot putt away from the most outrageous victory in sport.

Just seven weeks shy of his 60th birthday, Watson lined himself up for one giant leap into folklore at The Open Championship, an achievement exceeded perhaps only by the moon landing 40 years ago today.

Yet one small putt on the final green would be the undoing of this remarkable man and Stewart Cink took full advantage as Major Tom ran out of rocket fuel in the four hole playoff.

Ingenious out of the sand all week, Watson would lose a shot to his opponent when he fanned his ball slightly out of an appallingly difficult lie close to the face of a greenside bunker on the first play-off hole, the fifth.

They both played the sixth in par before golf's impossible dream died at 17, where Watson drove into deep rough; could only advance his ball a few yards and then three putted for double-bogey seven to Cink's birdie.

Their trip up 18 was irrelevant, Cink extending his winning margin to six with a birdie, while Watson took bogey. “The playoff was one bad shot after another,” the crestfallen 59-year-old confessed. “I didn't give him much of a match.”

“What I do take out of this week, however, was a lot of warmth and a lot of spirituality in the sense that there was something out there that helped me along. It's Turnberry, the great memories here, they spurred me on.”

Then, showing the rich sense of humour which had underpinned his performance here, Watson quipped: “Now It's going to be like Jack. I'll never remember what the hell club I hit anytime during the whole tournament.”

Exactly 34 years after the first of his five Open Championship victories at Carnoustie, he humbled the present generation of players with a display of panache and wonderful self control in trying conditions on the links he loves so well, Turnberry.

This beautifully scenic and strategic course was made famous by Watson's ‘Duel in the Sun' with Jack Nicklaus in 1977.

Yet after breathing life into the memories of that wonderful occasion for 71 holes, Watson stumbled in the sunset, missing an eight foot putt for par at the least as he completed a closing round of 72 and tie with Cink on two-under.

So Watson will instead be haunted by ghostly echoes from the most recent of the three Open Championships at Turnberry 15 years years ago, when he played majestically but was spurned by an unruly putter and endured the biggest disappointment of his career. One shot ahead of Nicklaus as they played the last 32 years ago, Watson led Cink by the same margin as he stood in the middle of the fairway at 18 yesterday after playing his tee shot once again with the precision of the surgeon who'd performed his hip-replacement last year.

“I was thinking between eight and 9-iron and I went with eight,” he explained.

“I caught it the way I intended and thought it was great in the air and, sure enough, it went too far. I chose to putt from the short rough because I felt I'd a better chance to get it close up the slope.

“I decided to make sure not to leave it short and gunned it on by and made a lousy putt.”

Cink, 36, who sank a 18 foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole for a closing 69 which clinched his place in sudden death.

For the second time in 13 months, Lee Westwood missed the playoff at a Major Championship by one stroke, though yesterday hurt a lot more than last summer's stirring close call at the US Open in Torrey Pines.

Par at the final hole would have clinched a place in sudden death for the 36-year-old Englishman but he three-putted for bogey from 45 feet after hitting his first effort eight feet past the hole.

Going all-out for the cut and birdie was a cruel error of judgement at the end of an exhausting day in which Westwood seemed most likely to win his first Major title and break Britain's 10-year duck at golf's Grand Slams.

“I played great all week and third place is not to be sniffed at in a Major Championship but it's disappointing really. The US Open last year was pretty sickening but, obviously, this is The Open and it means the most to me.”

Ross Fisher appeared to have the Claret Jug within his grasp after speeding into a commanding lead at five-under after birdies on the first two holes, especially when he chipped in brilliantly from the hollow to the right of the second green.

There was no way back for Fisher after that and final round 75 would leave him in a tie for 13th place. Yet greatest prize awaited the 28-year-old at home in Surrey, where his wife Joanne was expected to deliver their first child in the coming days.

Yet, with every respect to Stewart Cink, this Open Sunday at Turnberry will go down as the day he spiked one of the greatest stories in history. “This ain't a funeral you know,” said Watson in the media centre.

No, but it sure felt like one.

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