Cink holds nerve to gatecrash Watson party

American wins first major in play-off after 59-year-old rival misses putt on last to fall short of an amazing victory
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The Independent Online

It could have been the greatest story ever told in sport. Instead it was one of the cruellest. At 59, Tom Watson seemed certain to become the most incredible winner of a major here last night. But it was not to be. There are some duels that cannot be won. Maybe the battle with Father Time will now finally be confirmed as one of them.

Under the shadow of the grandstand it was Stewart Cink crowned Open champion, although with the utmost respect to the nerveless American there was only one hero they were all talking about. How close Watson came to a dream victory which would have eclipsed all those that had come before in golf. Close will have to do.

Watson had two putts from over the back of the final green to equal Harry Vardon's haul of six Claret Jugs. In truth, that feat would have been one of the lesser records rewritten. Watson was on the verge of becoming the oldest major champion by 11 years. It was all there for him, just as it had been in the Duel in the Sun against Jack Nicklaus 32 years ago. Same patch of ground, another piece of immortality. The old boy could almost reach out and touch it.

But then the magnitude hit Watson. At 6.30pm, the Gods finally removed their patronage. The adrenalin-charged hands moved too quickly through the rough to jab the ball some eight feet past. There was still the chance he could hole the one back and so produce the most dramatic of finishes. Alas, the putt was never going in. A poor, dare we say, feeble effort. Watson headed back to the first tee with Cink for a four-hole play-off. But everyone knew. The ultimate glory was slipping from his grasp.

Cink sensed his first major was nigh. He parred the first, Watson bogeyed. One ahead. Cink parred the second and although Watson made a spectacular up and down it was still advantage to the 36-year-old. On the third extra hole, the 17th, it was deemed to be all but over. Cink birdied, Watson double-bogeyed. By now, it was as academic as it was anti-climactic. No sport can bite quite as hard as golf and no sport reveals less mercy.

Except the reception Watson received when walking up the 18th for the second time of the day was just as loud as the first and that should tell him everything. It is that he has inspired everyone with this astonishing waltz down memory fairway. It was 26 years since he had won his last Open and 34 years since he won his first. Next year is due to be his final Open at St Andrews. We can only pray the Royal and Ancient comes to its senses and repeals the rule which does not allow over-60s to compete. For Watson has just redefined what is and is not possible for a golfing veteran.

"This ain't a funeral, you know," he said afterwards. "But it would have been a hell of a story, wouldn't it? It tears out your gut like it's always torn out my gut. It's not easy to take. I put myself in position to win and didn't do it. I hit a lousy putt and the play-off was one bad shot after another. Stewart did what he had to do and I didn't give him much competition. But what I take from this week is a lot of warmth – the crowds were just wonderful to me all week – and a lot of spirituality. And it was good fun. I take my hat off to the champion."

Not many felt like doing that here last night, despite the grizzled Ryder Cup campaigner from Alabama being a worthy victor who is probably overdue his major. His 69 for a two-under total was the best score of the final groups and his nerve to record a birdie on the last hole in regulation play was exemplary. "I've just felt very calm all week," he said. I played some links golf in Ireland last week and that was very good relaxation and preparation. I also found something in my swing. That 14-footer on the last was the most crucial putt I've ever struck in my life. It was just a sweet feeling."

It was a feeling he evidently took into the play-off, which he played in two-under to Watson's four-over. Cink will understand why he is the biggest party-pooper in golfing folklore, but Watson will have none of that. When all the praise is said and all the hero-worship is done, his 72 should have been a 71 and that will always be a regret.

The Kansas City legend would inevitably be the player most bemoaning his fate, but there were others. It was lost in all of the Watson theatre, but this could have been one of the great days in British golf. In a tie for third were Lee Westwood and Chris Wood, one behind on one-under. Both bogeyed the last, although it will be Westwood who is most aggrieved for not ending Britain's 10-year barren major run. After eagling the par-five seventh, he held a two-stroke lead. Bogeys at the 15th and 16th were costly, although it was the three-putt on the 18th green which Westwood inevitably described as being "most disappointing".

"I've gone from frustration to sickness now," said Westwood, who also just missed out on a play-off at last year's US Open. "It was a tricky two-putt at the last. I figured I'd have to hole the first one. I didn't know Tom would bogey."

Westwood must wonder if he will ever be afforded such a golden chance again. At just 21, Wood will have no doubts. As an amateur last year at Birkdale he finished fifth and now as a rookie pro he has underlined his excellence as a links player. His 67 was the day's best score and his podium place earnt him a berth in next year's Masters.

Ross Fisher, meanwhile, was lucky enough to have more immediate consolation awaiting. After birdies at the first two holes, the 28-year-old held a three-shot lead. But disaster struck on the fifth where he took on a quadruple bogey after visiting the thick rough. In a five-hole stretch Fisher dropped a calamitous eight shots. With his wife, Jo, about to give birth to their first baby it was too easy to conclude that it was the husband in need of gas and air. In truth, all of Turnberry could have done with some. As Watson put it: "The old fogey nearly did it." So nearly, Tom. So, so nearly. You almost did it old-timer.

Cink or swim Stewart's statistics

Born 21 May 1973, Huntsville, Alabama
Height 6ft 4in
Weight 14.6st
Married to Lisa; two sons, Connor and Reagan
Professional wins 13
*Spent childhood in Florence before attending the Georgie Tech in Atlanta, where he played golf for the university's Yellow Jackets.
*Turned professional in 1995, winning the Mexican Open the following year. Joined the PGA Tour in 1997 and won the Greater Harford Open in his rookie season.
*Won 2000 MCI Classic and enjoyed best year in 2004, finishing fifth on the money list and winning the MCI Heritage and NEC Invitational. Spent 39 weeks in top 10 between 2004-08.
*Finished runner-up in Match Play Championship in Arizona in February 2008 before reaching career high ranking of sixth after winning Travelers Championship in Connecticut in June.
*Previous best at a Major was third in the US Open in 2001 in Oklahoma, a shot behind Mark Brooks and eventual winner Retief Goosen

By James Mariner

The Open Final-round scores

(GB or Ire unless stated; x denotes amateur)

278 S Cink (US) 66 72 71 69; T Watson (US) 65 70 71 72

(Cink wins after play-off)

279 C Wood 70 70 72 67; L Westwood 68 70 70 71

280 L Donald 71 72 70 67; R Goosen (SA) 67 70 71 72

281 S Hansen (Den) 68 72 74 67; J Leonard (US) 70 70 73 68; E Els (SA) 69 72 72 68; T Aiken (SA) 71 72 69 69; R S Johnson (Swe) 70 72 69 70; M Goggin (Aus) 66 72 69 74

282 J Overton (US) 70 69 76 67; A Romero (Arg) 68 74 73 67; M Angel Jimenez (Sp) 64 73 76 69; M Manassero (It) 71 70 72 69 (x); C Villegas (Col) 66 73 73 70; J Rose 69 72 71 70; F Molinari (It) 71 70 71 70; H Stenson (Swe) 71 70 71 70; B Weekley (US) 67 72 72 71; T Jaidee (Thai) 69 72 69 72; R Fisher 69 68 70 75

283 P Hanson (Swe) 70 71 72 70; O Wilson 72 70 71 70; A Cabrera (Arg) 69 70 72 72

284 D Love III (US) 69 73 73 69; S Kjeldsen (Den) 68 76 71 69; N Watney (US) 71 72 71 70; M Calcavecchia (US) 67 69 77 71; K Kuboya (Japan) 65 72 75 72; J Kingston (SA) 67 71 74 72; J Daly (US) 68 72 72 72

285 R Sterne (SA) 67 73 75 70; M Kaymer (Ger) 69 70 74 72; G McDowell 68 73 71 73; J Furyk (US) 67 72 70 76

286 S Garcia (Sp) 70 69 76 71; T Levet (Fr) 71 73 71 71; N Dougherty 70 70 73 73; V Singh (Fiji) 67 70 75 74; S Marino (US) 67 68 76 75

287 A Wall 68 72 75 72; B Grace (SA) 67 72 73 75; P McGinley 71 71 70 75; B Molder (US) 70 73 67 77

288 P Lawrie 71 73 76 68; Z Johnson (US) 70 71 77 70; P Casey 68 76 74 70; R McIlroy 69 74 74 71; G Fernandez-Castano (Sp) 69 72 73 74

289 D Clarke 71 71 78 69; K Perry (US) 71 72 75 71; G Storm 72 72 74 71; R Allenby (Aus) 70 74 73 71; J Edfors (Swe) 71 73 72 73; B Mayfair (US) 69 73 73 74; D Howell 68 73 72 76; S Stricker (US) 66 77 70 76

290 D Drysdale 69 73 75 73; T Lehman (US) 68 74 74 74; P Broadhurst 70 72 74 74; K Sutherland (US) 69 73 73 75

291 R Imada (Japan) 74 69 79 69

292 F Andersson Hed (Swe) 71 70 78 73; P Harrington 69 74 76 73; S Appleby (Aus) 71 72 76 73; S O'Hair (US) 68 75 75 74

293 JB Holmes (US) 68 70 75 80

295 M O'Meara (US) 67 77 77 74; F Jacobson (Swe) 70 72 77 76

303 P Goydos (US) 72 72 77 82

304 D Gaunt (Aus) 76 67 79 82

The Open was won by an American for the 11th time in 15 years. John Daly's victory at St Andrews in 1995 began a period of success for the US, with only Scotsman Paul Lawrie (1999), South African Ernie Els (2002) and Padraig Harrington (2007 and 2008) interrupting the dominance.