Champ expects more of himself
Cink says he's underachieved
Lost in what could have been one of the greatest golf stories of all time was one of the nicest golf stories of our time.
For many fans, Stewart Cink was grudgingly accepted as the man who beat Tom Watson at the British Open. He was even vilified by some for "ruining" Watson's bid to become the oldest major champion.
Cink accepts that assessment as "spoiler." He accepted it before he hoisted the claret jug at Turnberry, which he won over a nearly 60-year-old man playing on a new hip.
"Even when it happened, as the playoff was unfolding, I was completely aware that that's the way it was going to be and there were no surprises or problems with that," Cink said.
"With Watson and I, it was way heavily favored to him because of the sentimental value. I completely understand everybody's thoughts in that way. I heard a lot of remarks about it, and 99.9 percent of them have been in jest, like 'Why did you have to do that to the old guy?' But everybody in the end was proud of Watson for the way he played and proud of me for the way I played."
REGARDED AS ONE of the nicest and most approachable golfers in the world, the Georgia Tech grad is never shy about sharing honest assessments about himself and the game he plays. So it comes as no surprise that Cink admits that finally becoming a major champion at age 36 doesn't entirely fill in all of the perceived missing pieces of his portfolio.
"It certainly increased my satisfaction with my career," he said. "But I still consider myself an underachiever. Winning the British was enormous for me, as it would be for anybody. But it still took me from five to six wins. So I still feel like six wins is a good career, but I still could have done more already. So that's where I come from with the underachiever. But the British Open win does a lot to erase that."
Cink was able to do at Turnberry what Kenny Perry was unable to do three months earlier at Augusta National Golf Club -- gain major redemption. Both had suffered agonizing near misses as younger men at majors, which for many years defined them.
At the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills, Cink three-putted the 72nd green -- absent-mindedly missing a 2-footer before what he and everyone else thought was the formality of Retief Goosen sinking a 30-incher for victory. When Goosen missed, Cink had to live with not being part of an 18-hole Monday playoff.
"I downplayed it, but it was more than a nagging thing for a couple of years," Cink said. "You know you only have so many opportunities in your career to win a major, and you start to wonder if I am ever going to get another chance to win a major. Over the years I came to grips with that."
When Cink stood over a 12-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole at Turnberry that he knew had to go in to have any chance of winning, he confidently drained it. He pumped his fist as if he already knew what he had accomplished a few groups ahead of Watson.
"When the time came at Turnberry, I never thought about that (U.S. Open) one time -- never crossed my mind," he said. "I'm glad I could live that down, finally. I've forgiven myself for that."
After missing the cut at last year's Masters Tournament, Cink felt like he was in some kind of professional malaise.
"I started the year in a terrible emotional state," he said. "I was not having much fun playing. I was really disgusted with myself and my performance was very lackluster. I was becoming what I feared most -- being irrelevant."
The evidence was everywhere, from not being asked for interviews or used in promotions to missing cuts despite playing fairly well.
"I felt like I was falling into a rank-and-file type position and I didn't feel like I was a rank-and-file type player," he said. "So I wanted to overhaul everything and start fresh."
His midseason makeover included abandoning the belly putter for a conventional model. With the blessing of close friend Zach Johnson, he started working with sports psychologist Maurice Pickens, of Sea Island, Ga., on developing a new practice and preshot routine.
"I was a clean slate," Cink said.
He practiced his putting more in the 12 days leading up to the Colonial in May than he had in years.
"He made the comment that his back was hurting and wondered if he was doing something wrong," Pickens said. "I told him his back was hurting because he hadn't been practicing before, so keep doing it."
Cink didn't expect to see immediate dividends.
"I chalked the rest of 2009 up to being a feedback session," he said. "Then I win the British Open and immediately got great feedback."
He has seemed like a man in full ever since, enjoying his reign as "champion golfer of the year" and publicizing his exploits with the claret jug with his Twitter followers.
"I think the reason it's been so satisfying is the way it ended up happening," Cink said. "I really played well every day. I finished very well. Then I played the playoff as good as I've played four holes in my life. Even if I had not won, that would have been incredibly satisfying, but to do all that and have the reward of everything you strive for to come to fruition, it was a fairy-tale week."
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.