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

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.