In July of 2009, The Open Championship returned to Turnberry after an absence of 15 years. Billed as a battle between Padraig Harrington, who was chasing a record-equalling third consecutive Claret Jug, and Tiger Woods, the world number one returning to the links for the first time in two years, a dramatic Championship was expected.
The Ailsa Course did not disappoint. Yet it was not Harrington or Woods that would make the headlines.
The Irishman had effectively written off his own chances before play began, stating that the tournament had come just a couple of weeks too early for him after making significant changes to his swing since Birkdale.
Woods, meanwhile, let the Ailsa get the better of him; his chances of a 15th Major Championship departing on Friday in an uncharacteristic display of frustration. It was only the second time he had missed the cut in a Major since turning professional in 1996.
As the cut was made, however, Woods’ exit became a mere footnote as one of golf’s greatest players began to shape one of sport’s greatest stories.
Tom Watson, the five-time Open Champion who was competing only months after a hip replacement had drawn attention with a first-round 65 in glorious conditions to finish day one tied for second place. Only a brilliant 64 by Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez, completed late in the evening, denied the 59-year-old the honour of being the oldest player to lead a Major Championship. But only for a day.
Treacherous conditions characterised day two. Watson, playing with Sergio Garcia and 16-year-old amateur, Matteo Manassero, used every ounce of the experience and guile that he had picked up in 38 years of professional golf to craft a level-par 70 while big names suffered. As the cut was made he would hold the lead along with American reserve, Steve Marino. Manassero, quietly writing a story of his own, was tied for 29th as the cut was made; good enough for the Silver Medal.
Home hopes were still very much alive in the form of Ross Fisher and Lee Westwood. Fisher, whose wife was expecting their first child at any moment, lay tied fourth, while Westwood was one stroke back in tied ninth though he was widely credited with having played the most competent golf of any in the field.
Day three followed much the same pattern. Watson once again crafted his way around the Ailsa for a 71 and the outright lead on four under par. He would be partnered in the final group by Australian, Matthew Goggin whose third-round 69 turned heads. Fisher and Westwood posted a pair of 70s to ensure that they would be paired together on Sunday. And last of the players under par after three rounds, Stewart Cink, largely unmentioned as a major contender, would tee-off three groups ahead of Watson.
On Sunday challenges were not mounted, rather they fell away. Goggin and Fisher surrendered with scores of 73 and 75 respectively. Westwood and 2008 Silver Medalist, Chris Wood, meanwhile, were left to rue what might have been. Both bogeyed the 72nd hole to finish at one under par, one stroke away from the winning mark. Cink, on the other hand, had holed from 16 feet to birdie the last and reach two under par.
All eyes were on Watson. The old master had started poorly with two bogeys in the first three holes. But he had rallied with birdies at seven, 11 and, crucially, 17 to stand on the 72nd tee one shot clear. After another beautiful tee-shot, he stood almost exactly where he had done 32 years before, leading The Open by one on the final hole. The approach shot was well struck. It pitched on the front edge of the putting surface and it rolled towards the pin. And it rolled past the pin. And it rolled off the green.
Needing to get up-and-down from a difficult lie for the Claret Jug, Watson putted 10 feet past the hole and couldn’t make the return. He was in a play-off with Stewart Cink.
Cink excelled as Watson wearied over the extra holes. It was a phenomenal display of golf under pressure as Cink, chasing his first Major Championship, made two birdies in four holes ensure victory. Playing the 18th for the fifth time, the 36-year-old American hit a perfect drive and a perfect approach to three feet before holing the birdie putt, just as Watson had done in 1977. He had robbed history of the chance to repeat itself, but he had created his own and become a worthy Open Champion.