LONG READ

The Open: You win some, you lose some

Watson And Cink

The 2009 Open Championship is not remembered for its winner.

Whether you followed the action nestled between your sofa's grooves or trundled around Turnberry, only one name embodies that unforgettable week in Scotland: Tom Watson.

The hall of famer teed-off at the Ailsa Course with a new hip, no hope, and an overlooked swing. Four rounds later he left clutching a silver medal; £450,000 richer but broken.

With a wrinkled smile and the world behind him, he almost overcame the weight of age, the 'strokes gained' dogmas and blunt expectations to spark magic on golf's biggest stage. I walked the final round in the throng of his supporters, willing him to topple younger guns and longer hitters to his sixth claret jug. Like everyone, I was crushed when the fairy tale collapsed.

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Watson was 59-years-old when victory slipped through his fingers. My dad would have been 59, too, and watching beside me, had he not slipped from my life two years prior. But at a baking-hot Turnberry, Watson helped me overcome years of pain, tears and struggle on the 72nd hole of golf's oldest major. It wasn't ideal for either of us.

Then again, life rarely is.

Tom Watson 2009 Turnberry

Past versus present

From Tiger Woods' missed cut, and the predictable groans that followed, to Stewart Cink - a quiet man in a loud polo whose win was never more than a side story – the 138th Open Championship was thick with drama. And then there was Watson. That smooth swing seen countless times on nostalgia-heavy montages taking one last tilt at a major trophy. A plodder overcoming the bombers and muscular swings of modern golf.

For three-straight days he navigated his way up the leader board, eking out a one-shot buffer for Sunday's final round; still the oldest player to hold a major lead to this day. Decked out in a blue jumper that matched the sky his face beamed. This was golden era Watson; steady, complete, unflustered, and smiling. Vintage golf from an all-time great. Everybody came to Turnberry in 2009 to see Tiger. They roared for a different TW come Sunday.

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In a stroke of fortune, Watson's efforts dovetailed with my first time at a links course. Aside from the tired 'it's much hillier than you appreciate on the TV' trope, I was struck by the sparsity of the landscape. Remove the crowds and the TV cranes and the fanfare and your eyes land on the Turnberry Point Lighthouse, upright and alone in the distance.

For more than a century it has warded off wreckages on the Ayrshire coast. In 1977, it was there for arguably Watson's greatest moment; a one-shot victory over Jack Nicholson forever branded the 'Duel in the Sun'. In 2009, it watched in silence as his hopes crashed at dusk.

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Watson And Oxman

Gateway drives

Grief is a shank, squirting your life off maniacally the second it connects.

While waiting for Watson to tee-off that Sunday, my eyes were drawn to fathers with sons, old and young, sharing sandwiches, discussing shots, and building memories on baked turf. My ticket was a gift from my then-girlfriend now-wife. She knew how much golf meant to my dad and me, and how I'd ignored it since he lost a war with cancer. Under the Scottish sun, I clapped tee shots and felt my skin burn, the coldness of everything during and since my dad's illness rushing over me; thoughts and emotions I'd never let loose, or, more likely, thought it convenient to ignore.

When I was 12 my dad asked me to play golf with him. I refused because PlayStations were cooler than my dad. When I was 14 he took me to watch a European Tour event at Wentworth, and as twilight crept through tall trees, we stood behind Retief Goosen and watched him launch a shot at the sky.

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The ear-splitting noise that ball made as it smeared across the South African's clubface still jangles around my memories. Stood together, squinting at Goosen's ball before it vanished and applause rippled towards us, dad had won this war with a single shot. 

From the pitch and putt course, via the range, through to nine holes and then 18, he taught me golf's fundamentals. Those dawn tee-offs, rushed warm-ups, and cold waits between mediocre shots are the fondest memories I have of us together - portraits of chip-ins, hooked irons, and three-putts that left bolder strokes than any birthdays or Christmases.

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He taught me the correct grip and moaned about flop shots. He cooed over "big" drives and stood in the way if I found "gaps" between trees. He jigged after holed chips. He groaned when I played with friends instead of him. We'd trudge through holes in the winter, then ride in buggies when chemotherapy left him weak. Golf was brilliant with him but is forever incomplete. A saga of treatment gave the family hope for his future; a chance to watch graduations and weddings and lives from inside the ropes. Sadly, he came up short.

Watson Hitting Drive

Getting up and down

Like the yips, cancer has an annoying habit of not dying. Even after you've scorched the earth, it can pack its bags and pop-up beyond the reach of life-saving drugs. Despite the signposts, dad's end was instant and horrible. The aftermath was long-winded and worse. Either I didn't want to grieve, I didn't know how to, or I was just 18 when I lost a parent. But at Turnberry, swept up in Watson's hot-streak, a lingering bitterness inside me thawed.

As with Watson, my dad's golf game wasn't leveraged on one skill above all others. He was a not-too-far-but-straight-down-the-middle golfer, never leaking shots in vain attempt to outmuscle a course. He was my plodder. He knew what he was good at and was happy with his golfing lot. As Watson marched across hard fairways and into cups like a sergeant in Ralph Lauren, I saw lost hours brought back to life. One final ride in the sun for a golfing great and a departed soul.

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On the back nine, Watson drove his ball into the crowd around me, clipping a woman not far from his age as it ricocheted through rough. He arrived minutes later, same smile still shining, clasped her hand, signed a glove, and gave her a gentle hug before clipping a mid-iron at the green. He was a gentleman, as warm up close as he seemed from afar. Like my dad, it's just a shame his fight ended in defeat.

Arriving at the final hole needing a par to win, Watson found the back of the green with his approach and couldn't get home in the two that followed. I didn’t stay for the ceremony. I didn't watch him crumble in the playoff. The outcome was written when Watson missed that final eight-footer and history embraced someone else.

Watson Presser

Golf and beyond

Sport has the power to transcend its boundaries, goals and yardages to become something more. Before Watson's loss, I never believed that.

Heading into the final round, clutching my spectator's ticket, sport was just sport. But as my train pulled away from Turnberry late that day, light fading as bodies embraced and folded around every carriage, I sat alone. While families enjoyed a rest, my eyes moistened, the past and present washing over me.

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Loss isn't something you lose. Understanding that a piece of you is missing is easier than ever appreciating that piece to begin with. And there, above all the clapping and cheers and disappointment, golf showed me a loved one I thought had vanished forever. A few months later, with Turnberry recovered and stories settled, Watson told Golf Digest: "As much as it hurt me to lose…I could also feel how people there felt". Not everyone.  

In 2009, Tom Watson was one missed putt away from winning the Open Championship and producing arguably the greatest moment in golf's long history. For one spectator with red eyes and sunburnt cheeks, it will always mean much more than that.

Thanks, Tom. I'll never forget it.

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