Stewart Cink: The Open’s forgotten champion

Tom Watson and Stewart Cink look on during a practice round on the Old Course at St. Andrews.


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ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – On a drab, rainy Wednesday afternoon better suited for hot cocoa than watching golf on the Old Course at St. Andrews, Tom Watson visited the media center at St. Andrews and played to a completely full house.

Watson, all will remember, was the man who had a sixth Claret Jug firmly in his grasp at Turnberry a year ago only to see it slip away, replacing it with the runner-up’s silver salver. The man who stepped in and stole the jug, the unassuming Stewart Cink, was in the same media center at St. Andrews about an hour after Watson on Tuesday, with roughly a quarter of the crowd in attendance.

That’s OK. He knows – and accepts – the deal.

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At the 2009 British Open, Stewart Cink grasps his first major victory – and the prize that was so tantalizingly close to being Tom Watson's.

He’s the man who tore up Watson’s fairytale script, but a gentler, nicer, more articulate villain one will not find. For a dozen mostly nondescript seasons on the PGA Tour, Cink was making a nice living (he’s nearing $30 million in career earnings) but he wasn’t doing much to put himself in the golf history books. And then came the magical week last July along the southwestern Scottish coast – the one everyone will associate not with Cink, but with a man fast approaching 60 nearly beating all the young bucks.

Cink, 37, doesn’t think the public’s fascination with Watson takes anything away from his triumph. He believes it does nothing but enhance what he accomplished.

“If I hadn’t won the tournament last year in that way, with Tom being involved, it wouldn’t have been such a special event,” Cink said. “I mean, that just made it even more special, that 59-year-old legend Tom Watson was involved till the very end. So I’m not tired of hearing it. I don’t feel like he’s taken anything away from me.”

To his credit, Watson reached out to Cink this week and asked if he’d like to play a practice round. So the two teed it up on Tuesday, the conversation rarely turning to Turnberry. The two were together again on St. Andrews property Tuesday night, as Cink attended his first Champions’ Dinner. It was an emotional experience to join such heroes and greats in the room as Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Lee Trevino. And Watson, of course, who holds Cink in high regard.

“I’ve always liked Stewart and the way he is, the way he handles himself,” he said.

Cink hasn’t been in much form this year (he hasn’t finished higher than T-8 in a stroke-play event), but that’s not very different than a year ago, when he suddenly found something at the Open Championship.

On a wild Sunday at Turnberry during which several players jockeyed for the lead, Cink nosed to the front late, making a clutch 12-footer for birdie at the last hole of regulation to shoot 69 and give himself a chance. When Watson bogeyed the final hole, a playoff was needed. The extra holes marked the first time all week Watson appeared 59; nonetheless, people tend to forget Cink made two birdies and two pars in the four-hole playoff.

He seems at ease this week at the Old Course, a setting like no other. Cink says it’s his favorite place to play golf in the world. It wasn’t love at first sight when he arrived to play an outing nearby in 1999 and decided to go through the ballot like any other Joe Six Pack to get on the Old Course. He found it quirky, like many do. By the time he competed in his first Open at St. Andrews a year later, he was in love with the place. He has relished diving in to all the rich and detailed history that envelope a sporting ground so historic.

Before Tuesday night’s dinner, Cink had to hand the Claret Jug back to the R&A. He’d joked with Peter Dawson that the R&A chief would need to wrestle the trophy from him, but that wasn’t the case. First, though, the jug required a little 11th-hour cleaning.

It seems in the past year, not only has Cink’s prized jug had a travel itinerary all its own, visiting several clubs in and around Atlanta, but it’s served as a nice decanter for a variety of beverages. The first was Cink’s own choice, Guinness beer. His sons drank Coca-Cola from the jug. Coffee flowed from it for a Nike ad. And it seems the silver beauty even served a special function at a recent July 4 cookout.

When customs officials in Atlanta who know Cink playfully asked him to open the case upon leaving for Ireland for a pre-Open links tuneup, they knew full well what was inside, mostly wanting one last glance at the trophy. Imagine Cink’s surprise when he saw barbecue sauce dripping out the top of the jug. A friend obviously had forgotten to clean it after the cookout.

“Just bringing it back over here, I felt a sense of how much that jug means,” he said. “But it was time to give it back.”

Cink admits he doesn’t have the resume of Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods, but was firm in his response when asked if he was “worthy” as an Open champion.

“Am I worthy to be on the Claret Jug?” he asked. “Yes, because I played as well as I played for 72 holes last year at Turnberry. When it counted, I was able to come through and polish it off.”

And he even got all the barbecue sauce out.

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