Cook was two feet away from the 17th hole, one stroke ahead of Nick Faldo, and the putt needed only to drop and the title would almost certainly be his. The blade jerked forward, the ball hovered on the rim of the hole and then slipped away. Cook looked aghast, hurried the six-inch putt back again and very nearly missed. Mentally he was broken.
'I was alive, dead, alive and then very much dead again,' he said, his disappointment rendering his thought processes into staccato patterns. 'I've never been through so many emotions during a round of golf. That putt . . . I expected it to break a little but it didn't . . . I didn't hit the stroke well but at least I clipped the hole. I didn't duck-hook it . . . Seventeen was the key.'
At the final hole the extent of the psychological damage became clear. A massive miscalculation sent his 200-yard two-iron approach flying high over the flag and into the crowd. He was allowed a free drop but his chip went eight feet past. The putt touched the hole but stayed out for a bogey. The path was clear for Faldo.
The 18th, like the 17th, would cause him to be 'second guessing' for a long time. 'I was caught between clubs and as soon as I had the two-iron in my hands I knew it was too much. I got so excited and when I'm in the mood and ready to go I can't hold back. I guess I gave away a major championship.'
The emergence of Cook as a contender at Muirfield was as great a surprise as the wobble by Faldo that precipitated it. The winner of five US Tour events and the accumulator of more than dollars 650,000 in winnings this season, Cook entered this year's Open only at the behest of his fellow American Mark O'Meara, 12 years after his only other appearance in the world's oldest championship. Even after his opening 67 he said he would not care if he shot an 85 in the second round, such was his resistance to tradition.
Yesterday it was his resistance to misfortune that almost gave the 34- year-old from Toledo, Ohio, who is ranked 12 in the world, his first major. Beginning the day four shots behind Faldo, he birdied the third and eagled the fifth to move within a stroke of Faldo. A dropped shot at the seventh halted him, however, and he went into sharp reverse when he hooked horribly out of bounds over a wall at the ninth.
A seven seemed to have damaged his prospects beyond repair. 'If anyone had told me I would have a chance of winning when I left the ninth green I would have thought them crazy,' he said. Free from the concern of contention, he recouped some of his losses with a birdie at the 13th and when his further gains to par, at the 15th and 16th, coincided with Faldo's rockiest patch he was two shots clear.
Then came those calamitous putts at the 17th and the way was open for Faldo. The winner and the vanquished passed only briefly. 'We made eye contact and we shook hands,' Cook said. 'He said something but he was overcome by his emotions. Players don't have to know each other that well to understand each other.'
At the prize-giving Cook's glazed eyes and his frequent looking at the ground told of the understanding he had acquired in his disappointment. The man who had disregarded the Open in the past had realised what a prize he had discarded. And he cared.
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