James Lawton: Time runs out for a hero from days past

Jack Nicklaus watches from Florida with tears in his eyes as his old friend's poignant quest to turn back the clock fails at the last

Tom Watson, aged 59, grew old before our eyes in the gloaming last night. It was a sight which he had led us to believe was unthinkable but if there was pain in seeing it, and a frustrated longing for him to find just for a few minutes more the old and brilliant snap that he had displaying here so magnificently, there was also something you could hold against the weariness and the despair.

It was the privilege of being around Tom Watson when he not only played some of the most brilliant golf of his life but also defined himself.

It was how it is when you know you have touched something that will always shine like gold.

Long before the moment of decision came, with such awful finality, Watson's achievement was beyond any analysis of pro and con, any feeble attempt to measure the demands of one sports discipline against another.

It was simply to create the greatest, most compelling, and ultimately the most poignant story in the history of any sport you care to name.

The ending of the story was savage and true of life in a way which Watson had suspended since he arrived here at the start of a week which claimed for itself a charm, a fascination and an intrigue beyond anything most here could ever remember in any arena of sport.

For four days it not only delighted but haunted this beautiful stretch of Scottish coastline. Watson made nonsense of his years, of his hip replacement, the lines on a face which at moments of extreme tension became almost wizened by the need for more concentration, for one more drawing down of a resolve which had – it was not so easy to believe at any point in the drama – blazed most brilliantly in the unforgettable "Duel in the Sun" he fought, successfully, with Jack Nicklaus, here 32 years ago.

That was the almost eerie quality to the action of a hero who had come, literally, out of the past.

Such oddities of time are built into golf, or at least they were until the authorities began to restrict the qualifying exemption spans of great old champions, but this was nothing like that. It wasn't some ceremonial piece of nostalgia delivered by the remnants of a famous but terribly eroded talent.

It was, at least for most of this stupendous story, the real thing – the real heart and touch of a great golfer.

Nicklaus, who before the arrival of Tiger Woods was considered the golfer of the ages, was beaten by Watson while he was at the peak of powers which brought a still record haul of 18 major tournaments. Nicklaus said later, "I never played so well before while being beaten."

Yesterday, Nicklaus, back home in Florida, watched his great friend and rival with tears in his eyes.

Like the rest of the sports world, Nicklaus felt as though he had been carried into a extraordinary time warp. Watson hadn't taken some elixir of youth, but he was, in a competitive sense unquestionably young again, his talent as sharp as it had ever been but tempered now, stunningly, by the force of experience and judgement.

When he shared the lead after three days of golf which most experts believed would inevitably drain his ability to keep fighting, to keep the firmest control over his driver, his irons and the putter which at a much earlier age had threatened to drive him away from the golf course because it had become so erratic, and such a betrayer of his other much more enduring skills, he was asked if had yet pinched himself. He said there was no need for such an exercise. He was alive, he was awake, and he was gunning for the most remarkable triumph in the history of his sport and, maybe when you thought about it, any other.

There was no reason for him or those watching to question that assessment – at least not until the glorious spell was broken, irretrievably, when the 138th Open was torn from Watson at the moment of what appeared to be astonishing triumph.

Stewart Cink, a 35-year-old professional born in Alabama who had brought here winnings of more than a million dollars but no distinction in the major tournaments, none of the aura of a man like Watson, who was on the point of winning his sixth Open title and ninth major when his eight-foot putt failed on the last hole of the final round, came out of the approaching dusk to deliver his crushing anti-climax.

In Florida, Nicklaus watched the fading of the extraordinary dream with an almost unbearable sadness. He had been led to believe that something quite unprecedented was about to happen. Earlier Watson's brilliance and defiance had persuaded Nicklaus to say, "No matter what everybody else does they will make mistakes. Tom will, too. He knows that. The key for him is to not just let the mistakes multiply or manifest themselves into a bad hole. If Tom plays smart he is the favourite – and I do not anticipate him playing anything but smart golf."

It wasn't, in the desperate, bone-jarring end, that Watson played golf that wasn't smart as Cink moved irresistibly to victory in the four play-off holes. No, the man from Kansas City who tried to rework time and the possibilities of the game and his own self-belief in an entirely breathtaking way, didn't play any form of crazy golf. He played golf that was exhausted, worn down by the most astonishing effort ever seen in a major tournament.

Walking up the 18th fairway less than a hour earlier Watson seemed to be holding so much more than the Claret Jug and the £750,000 that goes to the winner of the oldest golf tournament of them all. He had in his possession a secret beyond price for so many men of his age. He had found a way to reinvent himself, his youth and the best of his talent.

But it had come to him, we would learn with a terrible bruising of the spirit, only for a limited time – only for the best of four days in a place for which he would always be remembered for something he had done so long ago.

Now there is another memory and it is even more deathless than the one that went before. It is of a man who made sport, time and the inevitable passing of a young man's brilliance stand still. It was only for those few days, but for a little while we thought we would have it for ever. And really, we do. Tom Watson didn't win this Open but he did make it the greatest ever played.

Shot of the Day

Stewart Cink knew what he had to do on the 18th in regulation play – and he did it. Only a birdie would be good enough and with the flag at the back there was no room for error. Cink's approach was perfectly weighted, finishing 10 feet from the flag.

Duff of the Day

In the thick rough on the fifth, Ross Fisher should really have played out sideways. Instead he went for it and the ball dived into the really deep stuff. His over-eagerness was to cost him a quadruple bogey eight and with it went his challenge.

Other Shots of the Day

On the 10th year anniversary of his Open victory at Carnoustie, Paul Lawrie enjoyed his first ever albatross. The Scot holed a four-iron from 213 yards at the par-five seventh. Later France's Thomas Levet holed in one at the 206-yard 15th with a five-iron.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?