'The response broke my email – losing the Open had helped so many'

'The response broke my email – losing the Open had helped so many'

It was the Open that made Stewart Cink golf's No 1 villain. But Tom Watson soon found peace in what it had done for others

Spare a thought for Stewart Cink who, through no fault of his own, will forever be considered one of golf’s villains – even if there is a certain pantomime feel about it. His crime? He beat a then 59-year-old Tom Watson in a play-off to win the 2009 Open.

Watson ended the second round at Turnberry, the layout over which he had won his second of five Open Championships 32 years prior, at the top of the leaderboard, breaking the record for the oldest player to ever lead after any round of a major. Twenty-four hours later, he broke that record again.

If he had held on, Watson would have shattered the record for the oldest player to win a major by 11 years. But with par needed at the 72nd hole, Watson’s adrenalin-fueled approach found its way over the back of the green. From there he three putted for bogey. Cink won the four-hole aggregate play-off by six.  

And there is absolutely no suggestion that Watson contending at an Open Championship just a few weeks short of his 60th birthday was any sort a fluke.  

“At the beginning of the tournament I felt I had a good chance to win it,” the eight-time major champion explains. “I was playing really well, I had played the golf course five times in competition, and some of the kids were playing it for the first time. 

“The fact that the winds were going to change from the practice round, to the north-west winds on Friday, I had the advantage because I knew how to play the north-west wind. 

“I had a lot of things in the back of my mind saying I could win this golf tournament. I thought it is going to set up nicely for me if I get a good start, and I got off to a great start with no wind, and then the winds changed, and the course got tough. People had to deal with that, even though they hadn’t dealt with it before. I had a goal for the last two rounds, to make as money birdies as I did bogeys. It didn’t quite work out that way, but it was close.”

As is often the case with Watson, he maintains a remarkably positive outlook on even his most disappointing setbacks.

“I had the luxury that I had won the Open Championship a number of times,” he says. “So losing it that way, it wasn’t the only chance I had ever had to win it.

“We went out to dinner that night. It was a solemn dinner. When I walked in people stood up and gave me a standing ovation. I was like, ‘Oh, come on, thank you very much, that’s wonderful of you.’ We went down and we had our dinner. I ordered my favourite dessert, sticky toffee pudding, and as soon as the last bite went down it was like, ‘Here they come!’

“People came over and wanted to shake my hand, take a photo, and get an autograph. In the end it was everyone in the restaurant, then all the kitchen staff, and then everybody else. We stayed there for 45 minutes after just saying thank you. People wanted to console me actually. 

“When we finally left for the hotel, we stood outside and there were these two young boys bad mouthing Stewart Cink, saying this and that. I was like, ‘Come on, calm down.’ One of them came over and asked me to have a photo with their friends. There were five very nicely dressed lasses there. They all lined up and I took a picture with them. The next morning I saw the Daily Express, and there on the back page was a picture of me with these five young ladies saying ‘Watson’s Birdies’. This was 11pm at night when the picture was taken.”

But it was the wider reaction to Watson’s Turnberry defeat that really struck a chord.

“The greatest thing to happen from that Open was the responses from people I didn’t know,” he explains. “My email busted because there were so many my system couldn’t keep up with it. 

“When I got back to my office in Kansas the letters started to pour in. The theme of many was, ‘Tom, I gave up on life because I thought I was too old to do what I wanted to do, what I thought I could do, but you gave me the inspiration to get back to it and continue to do what I thought I couldn’t do before.’ That was the best thing to come from losing the Open to Stewart Cink. It made me feel that I helped other people by losing.”

Tom Watson was talking on the Open Podcasts. Listen to the full episode below, on Apple Podcasts, or on the Open website.

The Open for the Ages

The Open for the Ages

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Barry Plummer

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