The Unassuming Champion Returns


ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Stewart Cink, the man who pulled professional golf into the Twitter age 140 characters at a time, was asked consecutive questions about Tom Watson to open his press conference on Wednesday and suddenly it seemed perfectly apropos to sum up the affable family man’s reign as Open champion in Tweet form: “The man who won Tom Watson’s Open. LOL.”

Twelve months removed from his historic, and in some circles on this side of the pond heartbreaking, victory at Turnberry Cink is still pelted with questions about Watson’s loss, more so than his gutsy victory.

Not that it matters to Cink.

Stewart Cink
Stewart Cink poses with the claret jug and fellow Open champions. (Getty Images)
“Do I feel sorry for (Watson)? No,” Cink said. “He has five claret jugs, I have one.”

It wasn’t a slight or snap, just the clarity of thought that Cink has acquired over the last 12 months. Or is it 37 years?

At Watson’s request, the two played a practice round on Tuesday and it’s worth mentioning that the subject of Turnberry never came up. If the golf world still views Cink as something of a spoiler it’s a testament to Watson that he considers his Turnberry overtime partner as simply a worthy champion.

“He’s thinking the right way from a strategy standpoint and he may be flying in under the radar,” Watson said.

“Under the radar” seems to sum up Cink’s claret jug year perfectly.

In fact, Cink arrives at St. Andrews in a remarkably similar spot to when he arrived at Turnberry, at least competitively. He’s fresh from ties for 22nd at Colonial and eighth at the Memorial, just like in ’09, with a warming putter and building confidence and, despite his status as the newest member of the Open champions’ club, something of an afterthought.

“It’s very similar to last year when boom, Turnberry,” Cink said. “This year I’d like to say boom, St. Andrews.”

Cink married young, had his first child when most of his team mates at Georgia Tech had more interest in frat parties than midnight feedings and inched his way to Open champion slowly but honestly.

Even now, major title firmly etched next to his name, Cink is something of a supporting actor in the theater that is marquee names like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. If life was a Hollywood script, Cink would be golfer No. 6, and he couldn’t care less.

“I’m not going to be Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods. Those guys are the best ever that have played,” Cink said. “But am I worthy to be on the claret jug? Yes, because I played as well as I played for 72 holes last year.”

On a tee sheet filled with “me first” athletes, Cink is the exception – humble and unassuming with a sneaky quiet confidence.

And on one windswept afternoon on the west coast of Scotland he was better than all of them, even the fairytale that was Tom Watson last year.

What’s often lost in the tumultuous Turnberry finish was Cink’s Tiger-esque finish. Fifteen feet, downhill, left to right, and the putt that would ultimately force a playoff with Watson never left the line. At the time the gallery didn’t fully grasp the significance of the putt, but Cink did.

“Every time I’ve had a 15-foot putt I’ve revisited that, whether it’s been for eagle or bogey,” Cink said of his birdie at the 72nd hole last year. “I haven’t had a chance to use it yet coming down the stretch, but hopefully I’m getting closer.”

Thursday will be July 15 at St. Andrews for Cink, not the 150th year of the Open Championship and the beginning of a title defense few outside Duluth, Ga., give him much chance of pulling off.

The simple psychological tenet removes the expectations of now and the pressures that come when a lifetime of effort manifest itself in a single 15-footer. It is, in large part, what delivered the multi-use claret jug last year, and will likely decide whether Cink will be able to contend at St. Andrews.

“Last year it was holes five, six, 17 and 18 at Turnberry, not a playoff to win his first major or beat Tom Watson,” said Dr. Morris Pickens, Cink’s sports psychologist. “It will be interesting if he can come out and play St. Andrews instead of playing as the defending champion.”

That shouldn’t be a problem, at least not for the cellophane man of major championships. Outside of Tuesday’s champions’ dinner – where he returned the claret jug which served as a dispenser of his beloved Guiness, Coke, wine and even BBQ sauce during his reign – Cink has largely been the invisible defending champion. It has been rare anonymity for a player who is much more at ease on a Georgia lake than he is in the spotlight.

But it’s not as though he has been a complete afterthought.

During his now-traditional Open Championship tune-up in Ireland, Cink and his family spent a few days in Dublin. One afternoon the reluctant overseas driver made what he thought was a traffic gaffe pulling out of his hotel.

“A taxi (driver) laid on the horn, and I just knew I had done something wrong and I immediately got embarrassed,” Cink laughed. “I looked at the driver and he was pointing at me, ‘Good luck, good luck,’ he was yelling. I went from being embarrassed to being honored.”

And in four days he could go from being something of an afterthought to an unquestionably dominant player who no longer has to answer Tom Watson questions.