Open Secrets: the Extraordinary Battle for the 2009 Open

The challenge of writing a book about a celebrated sports match is that we already know the ending. Where's the drama? By beginning with the denouement, Robert Winder tackles that challenge head on. His story - Tom Watson's epic but ultimately doomed attempt to win the 2009 British Open - is such a good tale, and Winder tells it so well, that the book sails as sweetly as a Watson three-iron down the Turnberry fairways.

Watson's achievement ranks as one of the most inspiring and heartbreaking near-misses in the history of sport. A 59-year-old, with a putt to win the Open? It's just not supposed to happen these days. The likes of Tiger Woods have taken golf out of its clubbable comfort zone and given it a fiercely athletic edge. How could Watson, mere weeks after having a hip replaced, compete with the new breed of relentless super-athletes? A Watson victory, 34 years after winning his first Open, would not only have been a triumph for sentiment and old-world values. It would have been a riposte to the conventional wisdom that modern training and fitness techniques have raised the bar substantially.

Winder is careful not to caricature Watson as a splendid old fellow. So was Watson himself. Throughout those first three days, when he shocked the world by dominating the highest-profile golf tournament, he refused to allow the media to write him in to a nostalgic script. He embodied old-school, self-deprecating charm - "You guys must be sick of me," he told the press - but resisted the idea that he was surfing a tide of freakish sentimentality. No, this was just about hitting the ball well, not some mystical communion with golfing history. Like all real champions, he knew better than to acquiesce to an easy headline.

But, inevitably, the headlines kept coming. As a sequence of Open titles, it would have been unrivalled: 1975, 1977, 1980, 1982, 1983 and now 2009. This narrative, once Watson had set it in motion, took on a predestined momentum. How could the gods, having made him come this close, abandon him at the very end?

Yet that is exactly what they did. On the 18th hole of the fourth round, the 72nd hole of the tournament, Watson stood on the fairway with a regulation eight-iron to the green. He hit it perfectly. Too perfectly. The ball hit a hard patch on the front of the green and kicked off the back. Watson's impregnable position cracked. He dropped a shot and was forced into a play-off. He crumpled at the extra hurdle. Suddenly, the man who had defied his age began to act it, dragging his reluctant body around the four-hole play-off. Whether it was the body or the will that broke first, it was a terribly poignant ending.

Winder subtly contrasts Watson's genteel but steely heroism with the character of another, still more famous competitor: Tiger Woods. Where Watson achieved victory even in defeat, Woods was dropping friends as quickly as golf shots. He walked through a practice round "less like a sportsman than a law student cramming for the Bar exam". When the gallery applauded him, Woods declined even to take his hands from his pockets.

This was before his fall from grace. But Winder observed what many of us felt: "Tiger looked like a man who hated the game . . . his sour and self-lacerating bad temper on display here suggested something that most of his life so far contradicted: the possibility that his victories were hard won, and came at a price, that the pressure cooker of so many final-round dramas had left him steaming." Woods's life had shrunk to vanishing point. His monomaniacal pursuit of control and perfection had strangled the joy out his game - and his life.

Perhaps Woods would do well to consider the story of Watson's near-miss at the 2009 Open. It demonstrated the limits of human agency, the frightening truth that the decisive interventions are often entirely outside our control. Watson's eight-iron did not deserve to lose him the Open. He was unlucky, even if he was too well schooled in golfing mores to admit it. Gary Player's line - "The more I practise, the luckier I get" - has hardened into the lucrative mantra of the self-help industry. But Winder is surely right to question such a simplistic view of success: "The trouble with the self-reliant creed is its blatant conceit: luck, it asserts, can be earned, even deserved."

All our lives are a complex mixture of opportunity, ability, effort and pure chance. Just ask Watson, deprived of the ending he deserved by a perfect shot that landed on an overly hard patch of Scottish turf. Such truths will always draw us back to sport - even when it is heart-breaking to watch.

Open Secrets: the Extraordinary Battle for the 2009 Open
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 384pp, £20

Ed Smith, author of "What Sport Tells Us About Life" (Penguin, £8.99), is now a Times leader writer
edsmith.org.uk