Tom Watson at 70: The 2009 Open, Turnberry and the greatest fairy tale never told

Tom Watson celebrates his 70th birthday on Wednesday, a notable number for a golfer who appeared to defy time a decade ago at Turnberry.

The American won eight majors in a hugely successful career, but perhaps it is the one that got away that remains so fresh in many memories.

At The Open in 2009, Watson rolled back the years to produce a performance that delighted those watching on, both those lucky to be there at the course but also around the world on television.

To mark his notable milestone, we look back at a tournament that will never be forgotten…

Fairy tales have enthralled, entertained and educated us for centuries.

Whether it be a lesson in morality, a magical escape or a triumph for good over evil, fairy tales have the exceptional ability to let us escape from reality.

It is a formula that succeeds time and time again. The problem is when it comes to sport, however, the lines become blurred and there is no one formula to follow.

Sport has no room for sentimentality, no time for history, no interest in assuaging our desires for the feel-good narrative. There is not always a lesson to be taught, nor always a battle between good and bad.

Just ask Tom Watson and Stewart Cink, who were part of a real-life fable that will live forever in golfing folklore.

Once upon a time, Watson was considered among the best players on the planet. At the peak of his powers in the 1970s and early 80s there was a magic and aura about the American great that resulted in eight major championships.

But, as with any great sports star, time eventually caught up with the great champion, which is what made the story of the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry so special.

By this point of his career, Watson was 59. His last major success was back in 1983, when he clinched a fifth Open at Royal Birkdale.

And yet, despite pre-tournament odds of 1500-1 and hip replacement surgery just nine months prior, Watson was on the brink of the most remarkable of victories, one that would have made him the oldest major winner of all time.

Even when Watson rolled back the years with an opening-round 65 that left him one off the lead, it was hard to imagine what we were witnessing was anything other than a nostalgic throwback to a bygone era.

Through 36 holes, though, there was an ever-increasing feeling of ‘what if?’ A gritty level-par round in tricky Ayrshire conditions left Watson tied for the lead. He couldn’t… could he?

By the end of Saturday – which yielded a one-over 71, enough to take the outright lead – the most far-fetched dream was becoming a scarcely believable reality.

A couple of bogeys early on the Sunday hinted that the rigours of major golf on a 59-year-old’s body had finally caught up. But even as Ross Fisher and then Mathew Goggin moved ahead, Watson refused to slip quietly into the background.

As the day progressed, there was drama that even Martin Scorsese in his full, creative flow could not have scripted.

While Lee Westwood played himself in and out of contention, Cink climbed the leaderboard and rolled in a 15-footer at the last to join Watson on two under and crank up the pressure. However, Watson replied to the situation with a gain of his own at 17, meaning he was just four strokes away from creating history.

Yet the fairy-tale nature of the weekend was replaced by the cruel reality of professional sport. A crisp eight iron sailed over the green, while his third back onto the putting surface left a tricky 10-footer for victory. The putt, as would be the case for Watson’s efforts over the weekend, came up just short.

There was still the lottery of a play-off, yet the grind of the previous four days finally took their toll as Cink made a major breakthrough in a one-sided extra four holes.

So near, yet so far. For Watson, there was little solace to take from a herculean effort that had warmed the hearts of those watching, both at the venue and on television.

“It’s a great disappointment. It [losing] tears at your gut, as it always has torn at my gut. It’s not easy to take,” he reflected after the final round.

For Cink, too, the gravitas of what had transpired on that fateful final day was tough to comprehend.

“I’m a little intimidated by this piece of hardware here,” Cink admitted following his win. “There are a lot of emotions running through my mind and heart and I’m as proud as I can be to be here with this.

“It was fun watching Tom all week and I’m sure I speak for all the rest of the people too.”

It’s easy to feel for Cink. The 2009 Open was the crowning glory of his career but he is somewhat the forgotten champion, such was the narrative that played out around him.

Since lifting the Claret Jug, Cink has failed to win another trophy on the PGA or European Tour.

But this is where those blurred fairy-tale lines come into play. This was never a story of good versus evil, never a tale of morality.

More just an epic event encapsulating sporting theatre, with a dream ending never getting to see the light of day. Certainly from Watson’s point of view, it was the greatest fairy tale never told.

“It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn’t it?” Watson said.

It sure would have been, Tom, it sure would have been.