History slips through Watson's grasp

TURNBERRY, Scotland -- Tom Watson stood almost motionless inside the cramped compound of tool-shed-sized trailers and blue-jacketed Royal & Ancient officials. Not more than a lob wedge away was Turnberry's 18th green -- the green where Watson's Open Championship went to die Sunday.

Reporters and police alike pressed their noses between the posts of the head-high white picket fence that separated Watson from the crowds. His right arm was curled around his wife, Hilary, who, despite the fading sun, still wore her sunglasses. Perhaps the better to hide the tears.

Watson stared at the matted-down ground, that same forlorn grin on his face staying put the whole time. To his left, about 15 feet away, was the wife and family of Open winner Stewart Cink, who had just disposed of Watson in a four-hole playoff the way you grind out a smoldering match with the heel of your shoe. Behind him was R&A chief executive Peter Dawson, who gingerly held the silver Claret Jug for the awards ceremony.

That Jug could have been Watson's. You could even argue it should have been Watson's.

Up by a stroke on the 72nd hole of regulation, all Watson needed was a par on the 461-yard dogleg nicknamed "Duel in the Sun," and the engraver inside one of those nearby trailers would place his name on the Jug for a record-tying sixth time. "Duel in the Sun" is what they called Watson's 1-stroke victory over Jack Nicklaus in the 1977 Open.

Instead, after waffling between an 8-iron or 9-iron on his second shot, he microwaved the 8 onto and then through the back of the green. It settled nicely just off the fringe. One putt, two putts, three putts later, Watson walked off that green in a tie with Cink. He would return in about an hour, this time looking every bit of his 59 years and 318 days.

Cink, an afterthought in this tournament until the very end of regulation, crushed Watson by 6 strokes in the playoff. One minute we're paging Al Michaels to do his "Do you believe in miracles?" thing, and the next we're sending condolence cards to Watson's backswing.

"This ain't a funeral, you know," Watson said later.

No, but there was a sense of loss. Watson had all but slipped the wedding band on Turnberry's ring finger when he inexplicably fumbled it into the shower drain. He had said to himself, "I like it," when the ball flew off the face of that 8-iron on No. 18, but it turned out to be the wrong club at the wrong time.

Had Watson won, you could say without apology that it was the greatest golf victory of all time and in the team photo of the greatest sports moments of all time. The Open Championship was his, and then it wasn't.

"It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn't it?" he said. "It would have been a hell of a story. It wasn't to be."

He was the crowd favorite. Scotland's favorite. The USA's favorite. Probably the world's favorite. Unless you were Mrs. Cink, how could you not root for a guy who last won a major in 1983 and was now pushing the calendar back by decades?

"C'mon, Toom," the Scots had yelled to him as he made his way from the practice green to the No. 1 tee early Sunday afternoon. Watson had led by 1 shot to begin the day; gave it back; trailed by as many as 3 strokes; and then, semi-miraculously, stood over that second shot on the 18th fairway with a 1-stroke lead.

Tom Lehman, the former Ryder Cup captain and Open champion, and his son Thomas followed Watson for the entire round. Lehman knows golf history when he sees it. He had followed Nicklaus at St. Andrews during Jack's final appearance at the Open in 2005.

Everyone was pulling for Watson. Course marshals clapped their yellow "Quiet Please" signs against their hands when Watson walked to the No. 7 green.

After Watson sank a 25-footer on No. 11 to move into a tie for the lead, the group's sign boy, clad in a white jumpsuit, shook his head in disbelief.

"Something special that, wasn't it?" said the 17-year-old Josh Smith, who lucked into the sign gig for the final pairing. "Fantastic."

On No. 12, a woman named Nicola McBride was struck on the left arm by an errant Watson drive that bounced back toward the fairway. When Watson found out what had happened, he pulled a fresh Titleist No. 2 out of his bag, signed his name with a black marker and handed it to McBride.

"It's great," she said, ignoring the small, pink welt on her arm.

Hilary Watson could be seen just beyond the ropes. More and more reporters made their way from the media centre to the final stretch of holes. It isn't every day you get to witness the unthinkable in person.

"Bring it home, Tom!" someone yelled as he walked up the 18th fairway.

He tried. But his birdie putt off the green sprinted past the cup. The par putt never had a chance. The bogey putt sent him to the playoff with Cink and the Nos. 5, 6, 17 and 18 holes. Not that it mattered.

"The playoff was just one bad shot after another, and Stewart did what he had to do to win," Watson said. "And I didn't give him much competition in the playoff."

He had stood silent and still in that fenced-in compound, alone with his thoughts and disappointment. He barely glanced up when Dawson, followed by eight other R&A officials, walked by with the Claret Jug and toward the 18th green for the presentation ceremony. In fact, he didn't budge until Cink moved past him. Watson knew his place and knew his manners.

Moments before the post-round news conference began, a reporter sitting in the front row to my left whispered to Watson, "Thanks for allowing us to dream."

OK, a little schmaltzy, but the guy had the right idea. Watson did let us imagine the improbable.

"When all is said and done," Watson said, "one of the things I hope that will come out of my life is that my peers will say, 'You know, that Watson, he was a hell of a golfer.'"

Another reporter thanked Watson for the week that was. And then he made a request.

"Could you help us with a good headline after today's round?" he said.

"A good headline?" Watson said. "'The Old Fogey Almost Did It.'"

He did, didn't he? For now and forever, that will have to be enough.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.