From the man to watch across four days of 60-foot birdies and precise swings and savvy management, Watson became unwatchable in the playoff as his body went drained and his shots went awry.

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TURNBERRY, Scotland — That pristine ogre known as golf has struck again, choosing a gorgeous setting by the Irish Sea to unleash its full and singular meanness upon a cherished 59-year-old man.

It enticed him for four days of enchantment. It ushered him to the 72nd hole Sunday with a one-shot lead in a British Open and a chance to broaden earthly possibility. It brought Tom Watson down that No. 18 fairway to deeply felt applause, and then it threw in a blaring roar when his well-struck 8-iron approach smacked down and bounded onto the green.

Then, as that ball pranced across the green on Turnberry’s storied No. 18, golf ushered Watson to the very brink of becoming by 11 years the oldest man to win a major tournament, before going and dumping him into untold regret and reissuing an ancient lesson.

Never underestimate its capacity for savagery.

One last, cruel rotation — “an inch,” as playing partner Matthew Goggin saw it — sent the ball teetering off the back and down into the collar between two cuts of fringe. It sent Watson toward a whiplash bogey and a four-hole playoff he would lose comprehensively to Stewart Cink, the sudden contender who won his first major title at 36. It sent Watson’s face from beaming utterly toward utterly crestfallen.

From the man to watch across four days of 60-foot birdies and precise swings and savvy management, Watson became unwatchable in the playoff as his body went drained and his shots went awry. Golf took him from the brink of mirth to sitting around uttering quotations like “It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn’t it,” and “The dream almost came true,” and, toward deflated reporters, “Hey, this ain’t a funeral, you know!”

Nice game.

“It tears at your gut, as it always has torn at my gut,” the five-time British Open champion said. “It’s not easy to take.”

As Cink went par-par-birdie-birdie in the playoff while Watson went bogey-par-double bogey-bogey, this beguiling sport even cast the affable Cink as some sort of antagonist even as he gained the playoff by withstanding a meandering back nine and becoming the only player among the top 26 finishers to birdie No. 18.

“I can understand the mystique that came really close to developing here, and the story,” said Cink, who has top-three finishes in all four majors and won on his 49th major try. “But in the end, you know, it’s a tournament to see who lasts the longest. … I don’t feel ashamed. I don’t feel disappointed. I’m pleased as punch that I’ve won, and also very proud of the way Tom Watson played.”

It would be hard to select the most merciless aspect of an early evening on the west coast of Scotland.

Maybe it would be that the nightmares to come would happen on the same hole officially named “Duel In The Sun” to extol Watson’s famous win over Jack Nicklaus here in 1977. Maybe it could be that Watson had played the hole in par-birdie-par through the week. Maybe it would be that his drive and approach on No. 18 came off the club so classically true that Goggin said, “He hit two great shots and was really unlucky to make a bogey.”

It could be that one of the all-time famous chippers chose a putter from that collar below the green and, if he could have it back, “I wouldn’t have hit the putter as hard.” Or it could be that the nine-foot par putt he left himself looked like it had buzzards circling overhead from the moment he struck it, meandering off short and to the right as the audience groaned.

“I made one bogey that I shouldn’t have made,” he summarized wistfully.

Surely, though, golf’s ultimate turn of viciousness had to be that it took Watson after four days of energy and vitality from one just seven weeks shy of 60, and then it left him out there for four last holes through which he suddenly looked absolutely 59 and completely sapped.

Watson would rank the disappointment “right up there with ’94 when I played so well here” in the Open “then came up with nothing” on Sunday.

He would say those wretched words, “In retrospect, I probably would have hit a 9-iron rather than an 8-iron” going into No. 18.

But before he said all that, he would stand on the No. 18 tee, four shots behind the steady Cink after three playoff holes, the suspense departed, the day exhausted. At that very same spot he had stood in just the previous hour looking completely energized, inspired and young. Now, after one unfortunate rotation of one ball, he looked shattered, tired and 59.

That was very mean.

Leaderboard
Finish of British Open, with players’ scores and total to par
Stewart Cink-x 66-72-71-69 — 278 -2
Tom Watson 65-70-71-72 — 278 -2
Chris Wood 70-70-72-67 — 279 -1
Lee Westwood 68-70-70-71 — 279 -1
Luke Donald 71-72-70-67 — 280 E
Retief Goosen 67-70-71-72 — 280 E
Mathew Goggin 66-72-69-73 — 280 E
x-won four-hole playoff