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.